The King and the Cotter-Pin

I kicked a metal cotter pin off the ledge just to hear it hit the ground. Even as it fell, it sounded hollow. The ringing reverberated within my head.

Derek White, Post-Holing to the Flesh Temple

I delivered Slatoris his groceries. When? December, 2005. I was a young man waiting for something to happen. There was, I remember, snow all that winter. I looked for any excuse to stay awhile to get warm.

He liked to play chess. He wasn’t much good at it, though he thought of himself as a master of the game — of strategy. I could have beaten him easily, but what would have been the point? He would pour me a drink (he liked gin) and, pointing to the board on which he had overnight made a move to counter my last, one for himself. A large one, with bitters. We played every day — each day a single move. Every morning he’d call up with an order — what he needed for the afternoon and night and next day’s breakfast. So I had — you see — to come each day, up the fire escape (he was afraid of fire and always took a room, if it were on the third floor or above, next to one), with a bag of — I cannot remember now what it was he ate. Except the cookies. Kings, they were called — shortbreads robed in Belgium chocolate, filled with raspberry cream. I picked them up for him at Teak’s. The girl had given him his first taste of one — the girl with the ripped fishnet stockings. I brought him his gin, too. Gordon’s. He liked me to “arrive by the fire escape”; he liked — he said — “a dramatic entrance.”

He also liked to talk. By then, he was an old man — at least so he seemed to me, who was just twenty-two … twenty-three? Twenty-two that winter — just. I don’t think he had anyone else to talk to. It was all behind him — his life, his life’s work. Whatever it was that was his work; I hardly understood it at all. He said he didn’t need anyone; his mind — he said — was “sufficient.” It projected onto the world everything there was, “like a Magic Lantern.” He was — he said — “at the center of all there is.” Even me. “You are my own creation,” he once told me: “my own self’s interlocutor. My very own End Man.” I did not understand half of what he said to me. He said, “I will make of my imagination a room and live in it.” You could not say he drank too much. He was — his eyes were … they shone with — fanaticism. Rapture.

You want to know about the time he brought the school kids to Aspen to — I never could understand why he brought them there. A conference. He had been arraigned for a crime against reality. He never said by whom. To talk about it was the only time I saw him laugh. Laughed so hard tears came to his eyes. You see he’d set the whole thing up, like a — you know he was a con man, right? No, that’s not at all what he was. He was like P.T. Barnum — a showman, a producer of spectacles. That’s how he put it: “A producer of extravagant spectacles for an age that has ceased to be amazed by anything except its own smoke, its own sleight-of-hand.” There was malice in it. In what he did. If you read Derek White’s account of what happened at Snowmass Lake in Aspen — in the water and in the cave. (If it was water. It wasn’t a cave — not a real one.)

Slatoris called himself a misanthrope — said he had managed to banish man and all his works. He replaced them with theater sets. “The world’s a stage — my own,” he said. The girl in the fishnet stockings — she wasn’t real. Neither was the other boy, Rig. They were mechanical. He rigged them both — he rigged almost everything — even the pine needles the kids walked on from the kibbutz to the lake were bought from a theatrical supply house. Slatoris preferred mechanical things to electronics, loved player pianos and little tin toys you set going with a wind-up key.

White, the young man who seemed at the center of “My Aspen Subversion” (Slatoris called it) — the kid who nearly drowned in the muck and ended up on the cave wall with the monkeys — he wasn’t real either. Nor were the monkeys. Not according to Slatoris. I asked him how White wrote a story about it all — a story Slatoris had given me to read — if he wasn’t. Slatoris laughed and said stories are the least real things in the world — didn’t I know that? Stories and writers, both. And what about the theatrical supply people — were they — what’s the opposite of real? Replicas, imitations, facsimiles? I asked him why the girl’s stockings were ripped if he had created her. “To show the necessity of imperfection, of disorder,” he said. And the cookies? How did he explain them? He wouldn’t. He smiled at me and ate one.

I admit the cotter pin was genius. To have made it — an old-fashioned mechanism, if you can call a penny’s worth of bent, cheap metal a mechanism — to have made it out of iron instead of brass. That was genius.

I remember reading about it — about the Aspen subversion, his last — in some book. I was curious. The writer said it must have been — the cotter pin must have been made of one of the rarer metals, perhaps a metal known only to Slatoris. You see how he had conned them all? Was he, as he claimed, an expert in particle physics? No. Slatoris’ drawing in White’s story — “Exhibit K: The Collision” — was a map of the damp spots on his cellar floor after a California rain.

“It was a bit of iron wire,” Slatoris said. “I knew it would rust and the whole damned thing would come crashing down. The genius was in the timing! I’d worked out failure with a book on structural engineering. I wanted the pin to give way just when the boy was up on the table — the giant chess table with the giant chess men — pure melodrama and papier-mâché! I’d built the cave, the chess pieces, the giant white monkey — all of it out of papier-mâché molded over wire armatures. It was my finest provocation — my most elegant subversion. My supreme assassination of the notion of reality. Reality! Reality is every man’s to fashion for himself, if he once admits that there is nothing behind it, any of it — nothing. The cotter pin was genius! And the girl — I didn’t give her a name. Even so, I fell in love with her — even if I’d made her and knew she wasn’t real. What was real — what is real? You” — he meant me — “do you imagine that you are real? Do you believe that this delicious King you bought me is real, or this excellent gin? Not even I am real — not even Dr. Slatoris! I’m waiting one day to look up from whatever I’m doing and see a cotter pin and, pulling it, bring down the world and be no more.” That’s what he said.

One afternoon I came round the corner with a bag of groceries — end of winter, March — and the apartment building was gone. Slatoris’. Not burnt down or knocked down — gone, as if it had never been. Nothing left except an open box of broken Kings in the grass. Chocolate on my fingertips, raspberry cream at the corners of my mouth, I asked some people — shopkeepers, a mailman — but no one had ever seen the building ever. What’s it mean? Christ if I know! But whenever I see a cotter pin lying around, I run like hell!