Sisyphus

by C. W. Johnson

The dark-haired woman paused to slip on a pair of glasses before entering the restaurant. The lenses were blanks; the importance lay in the wide frames, which were a cheerful red color--not so vivid as to attract attention but enough to distract a casual onlooker from the details of the woman's pale, oval face. She walked with her head ducked down, and wore her hair pulled back into a pony tail; she was dressed in black jeans, a pale yellow blouse, and a tan windbreaker. Inside the restaurant when the hostess asked her Smoking or Nonsmoking, the woman craned her head around to glance into the dining room. There--she spotted Cameron at a table next to the plate-glass windows. Fortunately it was after the lunch rush and a table next to Cameron's was empty. "Could I sit by the window?" she asked, pointing. Seated with her back to Cameron and his friend, the woman pulled a dog-eared paperback from her purse and hunched over as if reading intensely.

But she listened to Cameron talk instead.

"It's no inconvenience," Cameron was saying. A compactly built man who appeared to be in his late twenties, Cameron had a squarish yet not-unattractive face topped by a brush of bronze-blonde hair. He wore a navy blue polo shirt and a frayed sports jacket. "I told you, Gil, I'm to meet someone named Westphal here, at two-thirty, for an interview." Cameron's friend Gil said, "Really? What is it, a three-headed baby? Elvis sighting?" The woman had seen Cameron before with Gil, a man a few years older than Cameron and starting to go to fat. "Flying saucer conspiracies," Cameron said, "all hush-hush." Cameron worked for the Weekly World Report, which he cheerfully described to any and all as a 'struggling tabloid-wannabe.' Gil, who wore thick glasses, shook his head. "Sounds like a nut- case... Whoops, sorry, you believe this stuff."

"Nah, not half of it. A lot are kooks, like the guy I talked to on Friday. Another conspiracy. Claims the Japanese are secretly replacing all us Americans with pod people. But when I asked him if he had photos or stolen Japanese documents, he said no. He hadn't even seen the pods himself or known anyone who had. It just...made sense to him." Now it was Cameron's turn to shake his head. "After a while it all seems rather tame. You can't throw a stick in L.A. without hitting a channeler for dead rock stars or an astrologer for pets." "Before I got married," Gil said, "there was this one girl I went out with, Melissa? Her mother asked me my sign. Only in LA...." Gil paused, then said soberly, "I'm sorry about Lisa."

Cameron said, "Well, you lose some, and then you lose some. Just another Monday morning...."


Cameron had run that morning, two miles up the beach and back, the sand and the sea and the sky gray on the edge of dawn. Towards the end a band of steel had wrapped itself around his chest and his arms and legs had felt like stones. Then he caught his second wind and raced across hard-packed sand, exhilaration at his heels. Later, sitting in the restaurant with his friend Gil, Cameron had the same crushing sensation, the same shortness of breath, the same weight. But no exhilaration came, only nothingness.


The waitress brought plates to Cameron and Gil. After she had gone, Gil pursued the subject. "It's still terrible, man. And so sudden, just a phone call, bam! You seemed to be getting along with her. I know you liked her a lot."

At the table next to them, the woman turned a page in the paperback she was not reading.

"She was okay..." Cameron said.

"Oh, come on, I knew. So what'd she say when she called?"

"Oh, I don't know. That it just wasn't working out. Not the right chemistry, she said. Maybe I should go find a good chemist, huh? I think I dated a biochemist once long ago." He frowned. The stillness was broken only by the muffled clatter of dishes in the kitchen. "I thought something was wrong when Lisa had promised to do something with me Saturday and then I couldn't get ahold of her the whole weekend. I must have left ten messages on her machine."

"Huh."

"Yeah." Cameron drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "The funny thing is, I sort of had a warning about her. The night I met her I was dining alone and so was she at the table next to mine. I started talking to her, but when she had gone to the ladies' room this waitress came over and whispered to me to let it go, that it wouldn't work. I thought it was some jealousy angle I couldn't figure."

At the table next to them the woman listening took small sips of breath.

"Another weird one," Gil commented. "Okay, so there's the Japanese pod people last Friday, and probably a ordinary saucer conspiracy this afternoon...what're some of the other hot stories this week?" Cameron paused a moment to swallow, then said, "Archaeological cover-up."

"Sounds kind of dull. Dusty."

"Not really. This guy, Tate, who lectures at Cal Poly, says that all around the world, in Africa and Australia and South America, there are ruins of advanced civilizations from fifteen, thirty, forty-five thousand years ago."

"Ancient astronauts?"

"No, no flying saucers, I'm sad to say. He claims that his colleagues have found evidence these civilizations rose to about the same level as us and then blew themselves to bits. Claims our astronauts found a relic or two on the moon. Claims it's been suppressed because if the Sisyphus cycle were known it'd cause world havoc."

"Sisyphus," Gil echoed.

"You know, the guy who tattled on one of Zeus' affairs and was condemned in Hell to roll a boulder up a hill. At the top it would roll back down and he'd have to start again. Tate says human civilization is like that: every fifteen thousand years, we pull the plug on ourselves and have to start over."

"When's the next bang?"

"Coming any day now, apparently."

"Jesus."

"Him, too."


(In the middle of the run on the beach you think you see out of the corner of your eye a flicker of a shadow up above, and you look up, only you see nothing.)


"Something wrong?" Gil said in a low, concerned voice that made the woman at the next table stiffen. "What's the matter?"

"Uh, nothing. Just a headache again."

"Did you see the doctor?"

"Yeah, on Friday. He said it was stress."

"He give you anything for it?" "Yes--well, not exactly. Afterwards, when I was walking to my car in the parking lot, this nurse ran up to me and gave me a brown bottle of pills. The doctor had forgotten to give me this prescription. I have them right here." There was a rattle.

Gil said, "Sounds strange. Let me see. Hmm. Calcium beta- acetylcholinase... Never heard of it."

"Me neither. And I didn't have a chance to ask her about it, as I was late on a story deadline."

Gil shook his head and buried his face in his hands. "Don't remind me about deadlines, man. Eleven, twelve hours a day, six days a week on the corporate treadmill like a rat on its wheel in its cage. It sure doesn't do much for my marriage."

The conversation shifted to sports and the latest Lakers' game for the rest of lunch. After the busboy had cleared the plates and the waitress had brought their check, Gil said, "I got to get back to the treadmill."

"Good to see you," Cameron said.

"Sure. When's your interview?"

"In about half and hour."

Gil's chair scraped against the floor, and he said, "Listen, maybe after your interview you ought to take the rest of the afternoon off." The woman tightened her grip on her paperback. If Cameron left, it might ruin everything. But Cameron said, "Nah, I don't need the afternoon off."

"All right. See you later."

After Gil had left, Cameron sighed. The waitress came by and asked if he needed anything. He said, "Yeah, sure, a beer--wait, no. Let me think about it." And then he stood, pushing his chair back into the woman's. "Oops, sorry," he said, and then walked away.

The woman's pulse sped up. She turned her head just enough to see Cameron out of the corner of her eye. He headed towards the men's room. She relaxed and went back to her book.

Cameron returned to his table and ordered a beer. When Cameron's beer arrived, he took a noisy sip and muttered, "Damn Lisa." The woman at the next table had seen him with Lisa, a petite, athletic blonde bursting with energy, who loved tennis, roller-blading, cycling, dancing until two in the morning....

Then she heard the rattle of pills--Cameron had taken the bottle out of his pocket again. Take the pills, she silently pleaded. For an achingly long time the only sounds she heard were the tuneless whistling of the busboy as he swabbed down tables, the creaking of Cameron's chair as he shifted in it, and the gentle rolling of the pills in the bottle. Finally, he snapped off the lid and shook the pills into the palm of his hand.


(--and the thought comes whispered to you: This has happened before--)


Leaving a couple of bills for a tip and stuffing the paperback into her purse, the woman stood up and walked out without even glancing in Cameron's direction. Outside, the few morning clouds had melted away into the hot solid blue. It was a beautiful day, more beautiful than it had a right to be, and the way passers-by talked with levity made anger boil up inside her like a black thunderhead. She marched swiftly with her head down.

Two blocks away she reached her car, a faded yellow Honda. Opening up the hatchback, she tossed in her tan windbreaker and pulled on a black sweater. The red-framed glasses came off and were replaced by wrap-around sunglasses. Then she stepped out of her low-heeled pumps and slipped on a pair of ankle-high black leather boots. Finally she undid her pony tail, shaking loose her dark hair, and wrapped a black- and-white checkered scarf around her head.

Glancing at her watch, she decided to wait another five minutes. Maybe ten. Not too long, or he might leave. She shook out a cigarette, lit it, and took a deep drag. God, I'm a mess, she thought. I never smoked Before.

Her head ducked down as usual, she smoked as she walked the two blocks back to the restaurant. Halfway to the restaurant she saw the shadow cruise slowly across the sidewalk. Her midstep hesitation was barely noticeable. Around her the people strolled on in blissful oblivion. Bunch of damn frogs.

As she walked into the restaurant, keeping her sunglasses on, she saw Cameron's face pale and churning with confusion. I've come just in time, she thought. He's starting to remember. Cameron was getting to his feet, staggering almost, when she came up to him, her hand outstretched. "Mr. Harris? Cameron? I'm Ann Westphal. We have an appointment."


(You remember.)


Cameron shook her hand weakly. As they sat down at the table, he looked very ill at ease.

Keeping the dark glasses on, Ann thought, He doesn't recognize the name. She had secretly hoped her name would be the key to unlock his memory. So many secret hopes we all have. Ann decided she had to give the pills time to work.

Cameron placed a pocket recorder on the table. "Do you mind if I record this, Miss, uh, Westphal?"

She paused for a moment. "Oh, why not. And please, call me Ann." Remember, Cameron, remember!

"All right, Ann, what do you do for a living?"

"I'm trained as a biochemist, but currently I work odd jobs."

He nodded, but there was no sign of recognition on his face. "Why don't you start with your story?"

"I told you on the phone about, well, about the aliens. The aliens are already here among us." She felt embarrassed as the words came out of her mouth, even though it was the truth. "I know you must get a lot of kooks, but my story is absolutely straight--"

"Of course it is, Miss, I mean, Ann."

She smiled at him, but it was wasted: he was looking down at the table. She sighed. The truth was not important for its own sake, but only as a lever to get Cameron to remember. "About ten years ago--do you need exact dates? I've managed to piece together most of the story. The moshdeni came from very far away, maybe even--"

"Moshdeni?"

"Moshdeni, yes. I think that's a reasonable approximation for what they call themselves. A few years ago I found an old video tape of a news program, interviewing scientists who had made the very first radio contact, before the moshdeni went into Earth orbit."

Cameron nodded weakly, but she recognized it as an automatic response; she could see his attention was drifting.

"When they arrived at Earth there was some sort of accident, I think, with their drive system, a disruption of space and time. It killed nearly everyone on Earth."

Shifting in his chair, Cameron started to give her a patronizing smile; then suddenly he put a hand on his forehead and started taking shallow breaths. "Go on," he said faintly.

"What is it?" Ann asked.

"Headache," he said. "Sorry."

"What do you remember?"

His face went pale. "Remember? How'd you--" he echoed, and he ducked his head as if memories were swooping at him like bats in a cave. "Yes," she urged him. She needed a lever. "What do you remember about...Lisa?"

"Lisa?" He leaned on the table, his head in his hands. "Lisa. She dumped me, she--" He looked up at Ann. "This has happened before," he said. "Before and before and before. Oh my God."

"Tell me," Ann said, although she knew the answer. "Tell me what you remember."


Cameron closed his eyes and lowered his head so his chin rested on his chest. Then he told her, the words halting at first then spilling out faster and faster. He had met Lisa six weeks before, had dated her intensely in that time, he thought it had been going well, and then bam! she broke it off this morning.

But now he remembered that he had dated a woman named Lisa before this one: he saw her clearly in his remembrance, she was also small and blonde. That Lisa he recalled meeting while dining alone, six dreamy weeks of dating, starting to slide into a comfortable relationship when crack! came the end of the relationship, a phone call in the morning, sorry not working out, followed by a consolation lunch with Gil. And then he had met this Lisa. And before he had met the previous Lisa there had been Lisa. A whole chain of Lisas. "I can't remember them all," he said softly, "but it feels like years."

"Over ten years," Ann said. "But you remember now." She took off her dark glasses, revealing eyes a deep mahogany brown. Cameron stared at her. "The nurse. You're the nurse who gave me the pills."

"The pills that helped you remember, yes. What else do you remember about me?"

"And the waitress. The one who had warned me about Lisa. You're her."

"Yes," said Ann, leaning forward, and adding urgently, "What else do you remember about me?"

"Ann?" he said weakly, and then he lurched to his feet, kicking his chair away. Ann stood too, but he was already running out of the restaurant. She ran after him, dodging a busboy, shoved open the restaurant door and was outside, blinking in the bright sunlight. She didn't see Cameron at first, and felt a moment of panic--I've lost him--but then she saw him on the sidewalk, shoulders thrown back and his faced tilted up to the blue sky refracting the brilliant light of the day. She looked up, too, and flinched.

Refracted sunlight bent and coalesced into shapes in the air, things, vehicles, ships hovering in the air. The sky was full of them. "Don't you see them?" Cameron shouted. People walking by on the sidewalk turned their faces away and avoided him. "Don't any of you see them?" Ann took his arm and he turned to her, his face white with panic. "Why don't they see them?" he asked huskily.

"Because they weren't programmed to see them," Ann said, looking up, "just like you weren't, just like frogs can only see moving objects- -if you put a bowl of dead flies in front of a frog it'll starve to death. But you're not a frog. The cholinase I gave you stimulated your hippocampus, short-circuited your memory block, and with your memory uncorked you can see them." Her chin still pointing to the sky, Ann added in a whisper, "Do you remember me from Before?"

He looked up and he put his hands over his face. "I remember too much," he said, his voice twisted with agony. "The memories--they're crashing down on me. And the pain, I remember the pain, from each time that Lisa broke up with me, it's with me and I can't escape it." "And before her?"

"There's just a yellow flash of pain," Cameron said, nearly sobbing, "there's a worn groove in my life and I can't escape," and he started walking swiftly away.

"Cameron, wait!" Ann called out, but he broke into a run, running headlong down the street.


(You think of Lisa, and the one before her, and the one before that; each one a link in the chain that binds you.) # The battered Honda hatchback careened down the gravel road and over the last bump. It skidded to a stop in the sand next to a gray Ford Escort--Cameron's car, which was empty and the driver's door left carelessly open.

Ann jumped out of her Honda and scanned the beach for Cameron. Cameron lived near here, in one of the canyons, and liked this beach for his morning run. From Santa Monica she had followed him up the Pacific Coast Highway, past Malibu, leaving behind the heavily populated beaches for this desolate stretch of coast. No one else was around. The sun was in the last quarter of its arc across the sky, and the ocean had a copper sheen.

There---at the water's edge. Not bothering to shed his shoes or his clothing, Cameron was stepping into the water. Ann sprinted towards him. She felt desperate herself, and even as she strained to run across the loose sand she understood his yearning for the vast, cool peace of the water and the consolation the immensity of the sea promised. When she was halfway to Cameron a wave swelled against him, pushing him back to shore, but he plunged in deeper. And then she was running in the water, splashing up gouts of sand and foam, and he was chest deep in the water as she lunged and grabbed him. He was stiff in her arms but did not resist. In the swells Ann found it hard to get much leverage, and an ominous undercurrent dragged her feet out towards the ocean--a rip tide. It was hard work, pulling him back to shore. Waves rode over them and Ann choked on the salt water and her lips and eyes stung.

Then they were out of the water. Ann let go of Cameron, leaving him to lie staring blankly up at the sky, and she sank down onto the dark, damp sand.

But she felt exposed out there, on the edge of the sea. When she had regained her strength she dragged Cameron across the beach and into the cool, dark enclosure of a storm pipe, a tunnel of corrugated steel about five feet in diameter. A thin ribbon of dirty water trickled through the pipe. Puffing, Ann pulled Cameron about twenty feet into the pipe. Then she sat down heavily. Her hair and skin felt stiff with salt, and her clothes were damp and sandy. She tried to spit the salt taste out of her mouth, to no avail.

The mouth of a pipe was a bright circle of sunlight, the brilliance beginning to fade as the afternoon crept towards dusk. As she looked out she saw shadows criss-crossing the sand: the shadows of circular ships hovering in the air, slowly patrolling the beach. After a while Cameron stirred. "Where are we?" he asked, his voice croaking.

"I thought it better to hide in here." Her voice echoed in culvert.

Slowly Cameron sat up. He did not face her but sat turned away and cross-legged, staring down the inverted telescope of the culvert at the rhythmic motion of the sea. The ocean flowed ceaselessly, harshly repetitive, playing i

nfinitely subtle variations on the same staccato theme. Inching closer, Ann brushed her fingertips against his shoulder. Cameron flinched. "You remember now, don't you?" Ann asked. Cameron did not move and said nothing. Sinking desperation flooded Ann's stomach, and to stem the feeling she spoke quickly...desperately: "I don't know the whole story myself, because I was away, spelunking for a week in a deep cave in Kentucky. When we came back up..." here her voice almost broke, "everyone was gone." "Somehow being deep beneath the surface saved us. The only two other survivors I've met besides us was a miner from West Virginia and a Lieutenant from Strategic Air Command in Cheyenne."

"'Us'?" Cameron asked tonelessly.

"There were four of us who were spelunking. The rest are gone now. When we came up, everyone was dead. At first. Sharon killed herself right away. Phil got sick a few years later and died. Tom and I got into an argument five years ago and I haven't seen him since..." She shook her head sadly, then continued.

"The moshdeni must have felt terribly guilty, for they tried to repopulate the planet. People starting reappearing. But after a while we realized it wasn't quite right.

"The moshdeni aren't like us. The tape I saw speculated that they're hive-creatures, like bees and termites but of a whole new order, communicating telepathically. If they're a deep-space race then their communal mind is spread over thousands of light years.

"I think that because of their extended communal mind, they don't perceive time and space the way we do---they couldn't and satisfy relativity and causality---they don't distinguish years from miles or even, as far as I can tell, distinguish between future and past any more than we see much fundamental difference between east and west. Maybe it's their indifference to time that lets them travel so far. "After the accident they bent time back and made copies of the people and their lives from just before the accident, only they left it in a loop, an endless repeating loop. They don't experience time linearly like we do, Cameron, so they don't understand their mistake. "I've tried telling them. I've tried communicating with them with ham radios, I've called in to late-night talk shows, I've even written graffiti on sidewalks and scrawled messages on the sand. I see them everywhere, silently patrolling, never responding.

"At least I think that's what happened." Ann said nothing else for a long while, but thought of her years wandering on the edges of society. The others like her who knew the truth of what had happened, Phil and Tom and Lt. Drake and Joe the miner, had fallen away one by one. She had searched then for someone who might understand the truth, and she had tried the beta-acetylcholinase on others, only to find them unreceptive and even hostile. Ann had thought then of Cameron, had thought he, of all the people she had known Before, might be the one to believe her and to understand. He was her best and last hope. Then she looked at Cameron, sitting there impassively, barely even blinking, and she couldn't stop it, the sadness swirled up inside her and she broke down crying.

"What is it?" Cameron asked at last. Ann shook her head. "Tell me, please," he said gently, touching her on the arm. Ann gulped a big breath. "I don't know. I don't know if you are even really human."


(The ocean stretches itself thin before you, from the sand to the horizon, its color a gunmetal gray. A surge of the sea brings the foam onto the beach and you step into the water. The shocking sensation of cold shoots through yours nerves--you have to force yourself to continue to stride boldly into the waves. The water reaches up to your chest, pushing you back towards shore, then subsides again. Another wave rises up and over your head, battering you. You gasp and sputter and spit the salt taste out of your mouth. With your toes you push out farther, until the current curls around your waist and tugs at you insistently. Salt rushes into your throat so that you gag and thrash and curl up into a ball. The ocean swallows you whole. As the last breath flees from your lungs, you think you see in the green waters around you the faces of other suicides, tumbling in the surf, multiplying in their desperation until the sea is full of those who would be dead.)


Her voice straining, Ann said, "I pulled you from the surf but even if I hadn't, you wouldn't have died. I've seen it before--in Philadelphia I saw a boy run over by a car, killed, and a week later the same boy was back playing on the street.

"I think maybe the moshdeni replaced you and everyone else with machines. Robots. Programmed to do the same things over and over again. Something very close to human, laid down on a matrix of your former selves, something biomechanical or else those drugs I gave you wouldn't have stimulated your memory, but still...not quite..." Tears slid down her face, leaving slick tracks. "Look at you! Look at me! You haven't aged at all in ten years! The world rolls on and nothing changes except me, getting older, day by day and year by year."

She put her face in her hands and sobbed. Between her gusts of crying she told Cameron, "We were lovers once, don't you remember? Me, Ann? Don't you? Can't you?" He said nothing. Ann took his hand and pleaded with him, her voice brightening as she spoke: "Remember me, Cameron. Even if we can't repair the damage the moshdeni did to the world, we can salvage our own lives. We can break the cycle and go off away from everyone else and recover the happiness we once had." She smiled and her eyes shone with hope. "You can stop rolling the stone uphill..."

But his thoughts were elsewhere, his vision fixated on an inner horizon. He asked her, in a strangled voice, "Can I be fixed?" "What?"

His eyes closed, he asked, "Can I be fixed? So...Lisa...doesn't always leave me?"

Ann felt like she had been slapped. "Lisa?" she said, her voice rising. "Forget Lisa! What about me? Remember me!" And she grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard.

"Something is wrong with me." And his voice trailed off: "You're right, I'm a machine..."

He abruptly scrambled out of the storm pipe and stood up on the beach, brushing off sand and seaweed. Ann ran after him and pulled on his arm but he moved mechanically forward as he walked back towards his car.

"Please, Cameron," Ann said. "We had a terrible fight, two years before the moshdeni came, but I always knew that was a mistake, I really loved you and you really loved me. No one understood me like you did, no one believed in me like you did. Cameron, please, wake up from this nightmare!" She stopped, her arms spread, her face twisted by fear and love and despair. He paused then, and turned towards her, and for a moment she felt a heartbeat of hope.

Then the shadow crossed over them. Cameron did not look up, but she did, and she saw the huge disk-shaped vehicle, over a hundred yards in diameter, hovering low above them.

"Oh, Cameron," she whispered.

She thought she saw a softening in his face, a sadness. "I wish I could," he said, the wind whipping sand at his feet. Loneliness jolted Ann; it felt like sticking her finger into an electric socket, only colder. Cameron looked down at his torso and put his hands on his stomach. "But I can feel the gears turning inside me. I'm not programmed to love you."

And he walked up to the beach to his car, closed his door with a distant thud, and drove away.


The sand and the sea and the sky were gray on the edge of dawn, wrapped in folds of mist. A band of steel wrapped itself around Cameron's chest and his arms and legs felt like stones. His running shoes slapped on the damp sand and fog enveloped the world; he felt like he was straining to run nowhere. His body ached with the effort but it was a good pain, an exhilarating pain. And then on the shore, face-down and half in the surf, he saw the pale body of a dark-haired woman. He ran on.


Some weeks later Cameron was dining alone when a small, pretty blonde woman at the table next to him, also sitting alone, caught his eye. She smiled brightly at him and they struck up a conversation. Her name was Lisa, and she suggested that they make a date for tennis. The strange part was when Lisa had gone to the women's room; her waitress, a dark-haired woman in her late thirties, came up to Cameron and said, "Don't go out with her." Startled, Cameron looked up at her. "It won't work."

He thought it was some odd jealousy thing. But then for a fleeting instant he felt a flash of recognition of the waitress' face, and a deep, instinctive link; he thought, without knowing why, We live in wheels within wheels, epicycles within cycles.

And then the thought and the waitress were gone.

Lisa returned from the women's room. "See you at tennis," she said, smiling.

Another day, another stone.


Copyright 1995 Calvin W. Johnson. Do not reproduce or quote in any form.

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