:: Article

The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing

By Nicholas Rombes.

In this segment, Roberto Acestes Laing describes, for the novel’s narrator who has tracked him down in remote Wisconsin, a film he watched and destroyed, entitled Hutton (1951).

“In the film, the car windows are open,” Laing says. “A fluke warm day in late October, the movie suggests, though I can’t remember how. Maya Deren’s granddaughter, Rachel or Raquel, or Aimee, gave it to me, the film, in the old stale cafeteria at the land-grant university in Pennsylvania, where we had agreed to meet through a series of letters (letters that served as long negotiations) and then through many short phone calls. When I say gave I mean loaned, though it amounted to the same thing in the end. She wore her black hair in sharply cut bangs, I remember, that was the style during those long years before the Towers fell. I could see the face of her grandmother behind or inside her own face, and her gestures seemed to imitate Maya’s swift and elegant movement in Meshes of the Afternoon.

And with her Aimee — that was her name, not Rachel or Raquel — brought several pages of her grandmother’s notes for the film, notes suggesting that it was not nearly complete, and that its ending would involve an apocalypse the likes of which had never been rendered on screen before. Aimee turned out to be a real chatterbox, which surprised me, except when it came to the topic of Maya’s notes for the calamitous ending, which she talked about in hushed tones as if not to arouse the curiosity of some invisible butcher towering just behind her there in the cafeteria, in a sort of transparent region of space that loomed behind her and that I could almost make out. And she wouldn’t allow me to examine her grandmother’s notes in front of her, forbidding me to so much as look at them in her presence. The cafeteria food was dull, which gave us a chance to laugh together at something, some shared experience, and it was then that I finally relaxed and flirted a little bit with Aimee over our dry mashed potatoes and slightly crusty orange Jell-O. In fact, it was Aimee who pointed to the mashed potatoes with her Spork and said, as if naming it for the first and last time, Mashes of the Afternoon.

“We spent the day like that,” Laing continues, “walking around campus, her all the while with the 16 mm film in her grungy satchel, and she would say things to strangers like I haven’t slept with your son, or Don’t worry, it will be over before you know it. She finally handed the film over, in one of those beautiful and alien metal circular canisters that can only be opened carefully and in a balanced sort of way by placing your fingers on opposite sides of the top lid and gently lifting. It had a red sticker on it, I remember, in the shape of a jagged cone that seemed something like an emblem of death, an emblem painted on with nail polish and, I could swear, warm to the touch.

This was up in the storage area part of my library office where I had set up two 16 mm projectors and an AV cart with a VCR player, and I remember that it was hard to breathe for a few moments with Aimee Deren sitting there cross-legged on the floor next to me as I opened the canister and unspooled the film leader, holding it up to the light like it was secret microfiche depicting the code names for all the torture centers. I had difficulty breathing not because of Aimee or the closeness of her bare knee but rather because I felt that the apocalyptic ending that Aimee had told me about might actually be lying in wait there in the film itself and that’s why I asked Aimee, So have you seen this before? to which she replied, as I knew she would, Not all of it. For a moment it struck me that we were alone together — really alone — and that we could have done anything with each other had we wanted to. So you don’t know if the world ends or not? I asked, half-teasing, but her face suddenly had the look of someone stricken, stricken with a terrible thought in the shape or form of a shadow.”

Laing stops for a moment, as if realizing for the first time that he had veered off track, or as if regretting that I had been sent here on assignment not to ask him about Aimee but instead about the unfinished Maya Deren film she had brought to him. He produces from a pocket, a blue bandana that he uses to wipe at a spot or something (I don’t see a spot) on the table in front of him and I assume it’s a tick or a habit or something about who he is that lurks beneath the surface of who he pretends to be that is just now beginning to reveal itself in this small action. I size up the discrepancy between my idea of Laing and the Laing who sits across from me now and it’s clear to me that if he’s telling me the truth about these films then it’s a special form of truth, one that operates by its own uncertainty principle. It’s actually worse than that. It’s as if Laing himself — even though he’s right in front of me — occupies an uncertain space, or else makes that space uncertain, so that position and momentum can’t be known simultaneously. And then I think about the missing children, and understand that this is how they exist, too.

Laing returns to the film.

“Hutton gets out to stretch, the 10th or 12th time that day judging by the bored look on his face. Puts his arms above his head. Reaches down to his shoes. Gets back in the car. Maybe not in that order, but close enough.

“Finally,” Laing says, “as the sun begins to set in furious orange (the sort of orange that’s such a hot image that it threatened — and if Aimee were here she’d say the same thing — to burn up the projector from the inside) the back car door opens and a man slides in. Hutton knows him as Hector. Dressed entirely in white. Large hands. Full beard. The whole scene is shot reverse-shot, just back and forth, Hutton in the front seat, Hector in the back.

“ ‘Well,’ Hector says. ‘How’d it go?’

“ ‘Good, I guess. Nothing happened.’

“ ‘Was something supposed to happen?’

“ ‘Well, I thought…’

“ ‘Just a joke, Hutton. Of course something happened. Now tell me what you saw.’

“ ‘From memory or…’

“ ‘If your memory’s good, then just tell me,’ says Hector.

“ ‘… because I jotted down notes…’

“ ‘Of course you did. As you should have.’

“ ‘… and I could read…’

“ ‘Like I said, Hutton, if your memory’s good then just tell me. But if there’s some fault in it then read me from the notes.’

“ ‘… the notes…’

“ ‘That you said you jotted down.’

“ ‘…’

“ ‘ Hutton.’

“ ‘…’

“ ‘ Hutton.’

“ ‘I could…’

“ ‘Read from your notes.’

“‘… find some fault.’

“ ‘In?’

“ ‘My memory,’ says Hutton.

“ ‘Even though it was just from this morning.’

“ ‘But that was…’

“ ‘Not such a long time ago, Hutton.’

“ ‘… under different circumstances.’

“ ‘Than what?’

“ ‘…’

“ ‘Than what Hutton?’

“ ‘…’

“ ‘ Hutton.’

“ ‘… than…’

“ ‘Than what?’

“ ‘Than now.’

“ ‘Of course, Hutton! Of course they’re different!’

“ ‘You weren’t here.’

“ ‘And that’s why I need you to tell me what you saw.’

“ ‘If only…’

“ ‘Hutton. Enough.’

“ ‘If only it…’

“ ‘Had been what?’

“ ‘Clearer.’

“ ‘I understand. And so.’

“Hutton,” continues Laing, “opens a small green flip-spiral notebook provided to him by Hector that morning. His jottings are mundane, trivial: boy falls off swing, 10:20; low-flying plane & everyone in park looks up, 11:07; two men in sweat suits argue in street, 11:30; Hector crosses street in distance, 2:35… These are shown, I think, as inserts. Hector says something like ‘Do you mean you saw me cross the street at 2:35? Is that what this says?’

“ ‘I think so. It looked like you.’

“ ‘Would you say I crossed the street in order so that you would see me?’

“ ‘Yes, I’d say,’ Hutton replies, ‘right up there,’ motioning to where the street forks into the boulevard.

“Hector leans forward in the backseat. He points through the front windshield: ‘There?’

“ ‘About there, I suppose.’

“ ‘Drive me up there, Hutton,’ Hector says abruptly, leaning back in his seat. ‘Drive me to where you think you saw me.’

“Hector starts the car, adjusts the rearview mirror so that he can see Hector, pulls forward along the curb. The sun is very low now. The earth is disappearing. This is conveyed,” Laing tells me, “by some weird red line that suddenly appears horizontally across the screen. That line, that wavering line, somehow suggests the disappearance of the earth. The very earth itself as well as the conditions that made earth possible along with any thought of humanity. This is something that both Aimee and I felt, as it seemed to drain the space we were in of meaning and while it’s true that my library office was never the same after that red line appeared it may have had more to do with what was going on secretly and magnetically between Aimee and myself than with the line, which after all was just something projected on the wall.”

Laing pauses, as if deciding whether to lie to me or not, and I say this because — and listening to the tapes again now makes this clear — rather than pause or hesitate when he was about to lie he sped up, as if the speed of words could waterfall on ahead of the rotten ideas they signified, or as if that knife formed by the angle of the sun on the motel room floor had been anything other than something conjured, some warning to me but not a warning from Laing, but rather from the dead field next to the motel where, if this were a film that had lost its way, the bodies of some of the children were buried would be revealed in a series of cuts that would strobe across the screen, depicting first Laing’s room, the throne chair splashed in blood, followed by a shot of the motel from a distance, followed by the field with the buried bodies framed by the motel in the very near background, followed by a final shot of an X-ray version of the field, with the bones of five or six small bodies, some intertwined as if in forced embrace.

“ ‘Here,’ Hutton says, stopping. ‘You crossed right about here.’

“ ‘From which side?’ Hector asks.

“ ‘ From left to right,’ Hutton says, gesturing. ‘From there into the park.’

“ ‘And you’re sure it was me.’

“ ‘It looked like you.’

“ ‘Of course.’

“ ‘I thought that was part of the assignment,’ Hutton says.

“ ‘The assignment.’

“ ‘Why I was here. To notice something unusual, out of the ordinary. Seeing you at 2:30 — when you said you wouldn’t return until evening — was unusual.’

“In the film (movie as Aimee called it; she thought film was snobby) it’s fully dark now. Hector has lit a cigarette, and Hutton can see him in the rearview mirror, the orange glow illuminating the vague shape of his bearded face. A distant siren wails.

“ ‘Hutton,’ Hector says, tapping his cigarette ashes outside the open backseat window, ‘let me ask you something.’ He pauses. ‘Let me ask you this: what if who you saw wasn’t me, but someone who looks just like me?’

“Hutton thinks about this for a moment. Turns the question over in his mind, it seems, wondering if it’s some sort of trap. The movie conveys this in a secret way, making you complicit in the act of moral defilement that gives rise to omniscience.

“ ‘Looks just like you…?’

“ ‘Let me put it another way,’ Hector says. ‘Hutton: are you not unhappy?’

“ ‘I am not.’

“ ‘Not what?’

“ ‘Unhappy,’ Hutton says.

“ ‘So then you are happy. Can we reliably agree on that?’

“ ‘I’m afraid not.’

“ ‘You’re not happy?’

“ ‘That’s right,’ Hutton says.

“ ‘And you’re not unhappy?’

“ ‘ True.’

“ ‘For God’s sake, man! You’re neither happy nor unhappy.’

“ ‘I’m afraid I’m neither. It’s the bodies.’

“Hector pauses and sort of pulses on the screen, as if there was a strobe light inside of him,” Laing says.

“ ‘The bodies, Hutton?’ Hector more says than asks.

“ ‘The ones out there,’ Hutton replies, pointing weakly at the camera, which means of course that he’s pointing at Aimee and me,” Laing says, “at us and our world, and by that I mean all of us, and you and me and everyone who has existed before and those who exist right now at this very moment and in the future, the ones yet to come. All the bodies.”

Nicholas Rombes is the author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor. He is also the author of Ramones, from Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. He works in Detroit, Michigan.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 22nd, 2014.