“I had seen and touched something I didn’t know existed and since that time I actually have tremendous faith in what saints and mystics call the invisible world.”
On his way to work Klein recalled Bill Viola’s much-told story of falling off a raft into a lake, imagined the video artist as a small boy discovering a new place filled with blue-green light and fish and wavering subaquatic plants. As Klein remembered Viola’s story he remembered himself as a smaller boy than Bill Viola was in his story, not able to swim, letting himself slip down the slide into the deep end of his aunt’s backyard pool. He sank to the bottom and instantly his mother was there underwater, kicking towards him, then her arm wrapped around his chest from behind and hooked under his armpits like a cleat. Sudden upward thrust and they broke the surface, so quickly he hadn’t swallowed any water. He thought he’d forgotten that time.
Klein was thinking about Bill Viola because he had recently taken an interest in video art. Next to Nam June Paik, Bill Viola was the most celebrated video artist in the world. They were the first artists of this kind he learned of. Klein didn’t know why he was taken with the medium. He was not bored of painting, sculpture, the novel or any other form. It wasn’t a reaction to some lack in one of his several diversions. It never dawned on him that this fresh interest might derive from a lack in himself.
He first took notice of the medium in an entry on video art out of a textbook his friend Troy Gifford owned. As usual Klein had accessed Troy’s studio from an alley between Powell and Cordova, through stench of urine, cadaverous junkies lurching along tagged walls, huddled between dumpsters, probing for veins with dirty needles, not meant to be seen at all. The grisly preamble was worthwhile, though, Troy’s studio being situated above a wholesale bakery called Xavier’s. Once inside there was always the scent of leavening bread. The ceilings were ten feet high, and next to the window facing the alley, a nook was filled with shelves of books, exhibition catalogues, magazines, and filing cabinets that contained myriad printouts and xeroxed articles related to art and aesthetics.
Troy would buzz him in. His stern face would relax when he saw Klein, the burning eyes would mellow, the furrowed brow would smooth over.
Opposite Troy’s personal library, next the windows facing Powell, was his desk setup. There was a Leica stereoscopic microscope connected to a laptop, a jeweler’s crucible, and several wall-mounted organizers with tools and materials related to his discipline. Troy had been a miniaturist and model maker, but visits to Prague’s Muzeum Miniatur and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles led him further, and he entered the infinitesimal sphere of microminiatures. Some of Troy’s works included a skull carved from a crystal of salt and King Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus made from a grain of rice and colored with pure gold and lapis lazuli. Klein’s favorite was an American flag micromosaic prepared, after Henry Dalton, from the scales of butterfly wings. When viewed through Troy’s Leica it glowed with its own fierce inner light.
They shared few words. Troy would hand Klein a near beer and return to his desk. Klein would sit in an armchair perusing, reading, while Troy worked with diamond graver and eye surgery forceps, making marks between breaths, between heartbeats, somewhere between the physical plane and his unbounded imagination. It was in Troy’s studio nook, flipping through the aforementioned textbook, that Klein met with the subject of video art. He knew nothing about it. The term itself was surprisingly novel. Inspired, he found other articles and reviews in Troy’s studio and these he supported with additional research online. As unsystematic as this investigation was, it exposed threads, the name of an artist or critic here, the title of a book there, scattered reviews of gallery and museum exhibitions that had long since come and gone. One such thread was Rosalind Krauss’s article, ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.’ There was nothing striking to him about the title of the article. He didn’t realize it was seminal. Of course he hadn’t heard of Krauss. It was the first Google search he did, the first result he got and the PDF was downloadable for free.
Klein read the critic’s lucid prose and for this reason continued. It pleased him how accessible her prose was, unlike some art writers, with their opaque diction and highfalutin jargon, their exclusive attitude towards the layman. And Klein was very much a layman, a cashier at Superstore, with two semesters of a two year general studies diploma at Vancouver Community College under his belt and no intention of continuing. But he liked to read. He liked to learn. He followed what whims he had where they might lead, time permitting.
Klein counted his float. Between each denomination he thought of Krauss’s article. How in video art the human being, rather than the tape and television, was the medium in “the parapsychological sense.” For Krauss, the term ‘medium’ was an image of a human sender and receiver of communications with an invisible source. An invisible source—the invisible world, Klein thought, as he walked with his cash tray to the front of the store. He was working the express lane. It was Saturday.
As he scanned item after item the seconds expanded like inflatable pools of more time, growing as exponents do. Each minute felt like five minutes, every five minutes like twenty-five, almost a half hour of inert abuse without an abuser, unless he accused himself. Onion, that was code 5282; broccoli, code 5361. He pushed a button for cash and a button for card, tried not to check the clock on the wall in his peripheral vision, kept its arms blurry, out of focus, looked over at his conveyor belt.
An elderly woman pulled in with a full cart of groceries. Klein didn’t have the heart to say the till was ten items or less. He let her unload, slowly, scanned the items, reminded of what Bill Viola said about video, that it was never a total image. It was a constantly scanning point of light. Whenever he scanned items he went into a kind of trance. Meanwhile the queue lengthened down Canned Foods. Saturday shoppers. They took the delay out on each other.
“I was standing here,” said a man with a very red complexion.
“Sure you were Tomato Face.”
“I’m sick. I had to put my things down to rest my arms.”
“Buy a mobility scooter, you bootless gimp.”
“I don’t appreciate you calling me names.”
“Fuck you. Get to the back.”
In the break room at lunch Klein watched from across the table a younger co-worker, Arlo, unpack his reusable container of fluffy rice and chicken. Klein was skipping the midday meal. He did so more and more as food prices soared. Arlo clicked the metal spoon on his teeth with each mouthful. Klein put in his earpods and found another Bill Viola talk on YouTube, wherein Viola discussed his mother dying in hospital as footage played beside the lectern, footage of his intubated mother just hours before the soul left her body.
There was a muffled announcement over the intercom that Klein ignored—after all, the thirty minutes were his and there were seventeen more of them to go. Arlo paused in his eating, waved at Klein, pointed up at the ceiling like a bloody doubting Thomas, Klein thought, and took out an Airpod.
“They’re calling you to the office.”
Klein returned to the video and again heard the muffled intercom, looked over at Arlo chewing, pointing upwards with his spoon.
The general manager’s sky blue eyes drooped at the outside corners and his hair was the color of cigarette ash. His name was Phil. He wore a walking boot cast since the rock climbing mishap in Squamish two weeks prior. The two of them never had a problem they couldn’t work out in under five minutes.
Phil looked over at the security camera monitor, all the perched viewpoints, as if saying to Klein that, yes, I can see everything from here.
“Klein, my man, we gotta be firm with customers coming through the express checkout with too many items.”
“I’m usually strict about that, but you must’ve seen her, she was old.”
“I understand.” Phil did. It wasn’t hollow filler.
Klein looked at the cell on the screen with Phil at the top. Klein was at the bottom, his early onset male pattern baldness stark when filmed from above. He turned back to Phil, who was steeping a teabag. They sat there in the small office, in the small bottom-left square of the grid, together in that parenthetical closed-circuit.
“You know I like you, buddy.” Klein knew that tone, that line—the consolational clause before the dressing down.
“Sorry, Phil. I’ll be more firm when that happens.”
“Early afternoon, weekdays, when the store’s empty and we’re all picking our asses, I wouldn’t say shit. But we’re busy right now, Saturday styles, and, yeah,” Phil paused, glanced away, met eyes with Klein again. “There was a dust-up down aisle 2.”
“I did hear an argument.”
“Well check this out,” Phil said, manipulated a trackball. Its cursor hovered over the aisle 2 camera feed facing Dairy. He clicked on it, then on a timeline, maximized the screen. A fellow with some grapefruits turned away from one man, walked down the queue, cut in three spaces from the end and another male figure punched him in the back of the head, sending him to the floor and the grapefruits bouncing and rolling out of the frame. Phil minimized the footage, tasted his tea.
“Whoa, okay, I see what you mean.”
“Yeah, it’s the weekend, people have chores, other things to do, they’re agitated, we don’t need to exacerbate.”
“Hundred percent, Phil.”
On the way out his boss lobbed over a couple packs of Skittles. “I got Bartok to pull ‘em, they expire tomorrow,” Phil said, and tossed in a smile.
Klein crossed Marine Drive and waited by the Chinese restaurant for the number 3 bus. A hollow cheeked man in a track jacket with a sorcerer’s hood turned away from mother and child to smoke crack through a glass tube blackened at one end. Klein saw him. He became vexed, not by the crackhead, but as he often did in a standing position amid traffic—foot, car and cycle—which seemed to whirl in a helter skelter frenzy all around him. And this he could not take. He made up his mind to walk to the 62nd Avenue bus stop, uphill, the avenue numbers descending. He made it to the 62nd Avenue stop and stood there for a few seconds catching his breath. Klein was no mouth-breathing jock! He waited and waited and still no number 3. The next stop was on 59th Avenue, a three block distance. He reached it, saw no bus, and decided to take the easier, almost casual risk of continuing two more blocks to the 57th Avenue stop, heard the growing amplitude of the electric bus as he thought about the man who cut in line and got punched in the back of the head. He didn’t even know it happened, then Phil showed him the footage, footage from above as if observed by an impartial deity that didn’t see in color, Klein thought, because color didn’t matter in the spirit. The number 3 overtook him, stopped at 57th, just out of jogging distance, and went on.
Klein turned right at 38th and continued past Sophia, underneath the giant boughs of elms and oaks, dappling the afternoon grasses like a fairytale, he thought, an idyllic fairytale with a clear conflict and a secure resolution and nothing left to spare.
He lived in the top corner of a three story walkup. Klein’s suite faced the avenue with all the old trees. After work he sat next to the large window with a book and read noncommittally. Mostly he looked out the window at the robins in a nearby tree, admiring their scarlet breasts, their heads twitching, their frequent flights to and from the branches where they preened and sang, Klein trying to understand their ways, imagining, failing to imagine what it might be like to inhabit their consciousness, or sentience, what it might be like to experience their nervous system. He conjectured that a choice for them was a reflex for him, that their life was a continuous reflexive sequence of organic necessity like blood pulse. He sat for some time there as the evening shadows lengthened and darkened and a phone call disturbed his reverie. It was his mother.
“Hello my dear, how are you?”
“Good, I just got home from work. I’m sitting by the window watching the birds.”
“Well, I thought I’d give you a ring, it’s been a couple weeks since we chatted. What’s new?”
“Nothing much to report, really,” Klein mumbled.
“Surely you’ve been doing something with your off hours.”
“I’ve been learning about video art, actually, this certain video artist, Bill Viola.”
“See, I knew it, you’ve always got something cooking—I don’t think I’ve heard of that, though.”
“Neither had I.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a guy. He makes art with video. He uses a lot of slow motion. People falling into water and stuff like that. The works are displayed on huge plasma screens. It’s really spiritual. They don’t have a story.” Klein hadn’t shared this new interest with anyone, other than it being implied when he borrowed related materials from Troy. It didn’t matter, though, his mother changed the subject.
“You’re invited to join Keith and I in Puerto Vallarta this November. He proposed to me when we were there in February. We’ve decided to return for our wedding.”
“You’re getting married,” he croaked.
“Yes. And we want you to be there.”
“This is a lot. I’m going to need some thinking time.”
That was all he could say. Wendy didn’t get the “congratulations” she hoped for, wanted to scold him.
“It’s booked, Klein. We’re staying at a beautiful all-inclusive. You just have to pack a suitcase and get on the plane for crying out loud. PV is lovely. We took nice walks on the Malecon, the seaside promenade with all the artistic statues and palm trees. I think you’d love it.”
“I’ll consider it,” he stated coldly, imagined Keith and his mother wandering away from the Malecon, checking into a fleabag hotel for an hour and fucking the shit out of each other like twenty year olds.
“Okay, my son. I love you. I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Love you, mom.”
He hung up. Flashback. Five year lacuna. Klein’s father’s new Ford Explorer found abandoned at its usual place in the parking lot next to the Templeton metro station. Like most airport employees that drove, he left his vehicle at Templeton and caught the train two stops to YVR airport, where he had worked for eighteen years as an air traffic controller. After failing to return home when his scheduled shift ended, which was highly abnormal, Wendy notified police and contacted her husband’s supervisor, who informed Wendy that Doug did not show up for his shift and did not call in sick, both also totally out of character.
Doug’s vehicle was located later that day. When examined by police there was no sign of a struggle, no evidence of foul play. Stranger yet was the security camera footage at Templeton station, which showed Klein’s father entering the station and boarding the train. Camera footage within the train showed Doug standing with his lunch cooler and disembarking at YVR airport station. But, on the exact same timecode, the YVR platform footage did not show Doug’s exit from the train where he should have been, based on the train’s footage. Klein’s father had vanished.
There was no mention of his name in the airport’s departure records. There were no anomalous transactions in he and Wendy’s joint bank account.
The police investigation continued but remained inconclusive. Wendy decided to hire a private investigator, with some reservation, knowing that what she may learn could be sordid. Her missing husband might be exposed as someone vile or even as someone else. Maybe he’d been living a double life.
She didn’t go for one of those Craigslist imposters, she went with a listing that Googled high. The private investigator ended up being a Swedish brother/sister duo. Rolf and Agnes Ek were twins, tall, attractive, appeared to be in their late-thirties, both with the same prominent facial bone structure. Their only accent was an overly proper English. Klein remembered the Eks’ plain, expensive clothing. Rolf fancied mandarin collars and loose trousers, corduroy or cotton. Agnes always wore some variation of turtleneck and blazer with flared denim. Rolf did most of the talking. Standing on the lawn in the front yard, he asked Wendy questions about her husband.
“Did Doug do any hobbies before or after work? Racquetball? Golf?”
“He watched TV or worked on his models.”
“Was he a drinker? Did he frequent the pubs?”
“He’d have a few after work sometimes. He wasn’t a heavy drinker.”
“Were there any previous instances of infidelity?”
“Was your marriage stable at the time of Doug’s disappearance?”
“Was he showing unusual signs of stress or anxiety?”
“He was trying to get the flying buttresses to look right on the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral he was building. Things weren’t going his way. That seemed to frustrate him.”
“Had he ever went AWOL before?”
“Not unless I was AWOL with him,” Wendy said.
Then Rolf requested the most recent photographs of Doug.
They were the same questions the police asked her. Maybe the Eks would do something more effective with the answers.
While Rolf questioned Wendy, Agnes walked down the block and back, looking at a tree or streetlight or car as if they might store potential meaning, but somehow she made it natural, it didn’t look eccentric to Klein.
“Do you recall anything odd in your father’s behavior around the time he went missing?” she had asked Klein.
“He seemed a bit quiet, like maybe something was on his mind.”
“Did he mention anything to you?”
“Not that I recall. Like mom said, he was just miffed about the cathedral. He couldn’t get the buttresses to look right.”
“What about the buttresses couldn’t he get right?”
“I don’t know. The angle or something. Not quite sure. He’d just grumble about it.”
This brought Klein back five years, to the 2017 World Model Expo in Chicago, shortly before his father went missing. It was where Klein and Troy met. Doug and Troy were both participants. Doug exhibited his diorama of Montaillou, a 13th century village comprehensively described by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in his monograph, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, which Doug used as a source. Troy stole the show with a diorama of Kowloon Walled City, some of its interiors installed with salvaged smartphone cameras running video feeds of a hairdresser’s shop, a denturist’s office and a family’s apartment, each miniature view displayed on a set of monitors.
Recalling this, he watched Agnes jot something down in a small field notebook that opened vertically. Her eyes were paler than her twin’s, the shade of fresh cut pine, and they alighted on different parts of his face while they spoke, searching for tics or tells that contained information of their own.
Meetings with the Eks were always like this. Followed by an update of their progress, or lack thereof, they asked a series of innocuous questions, then walked down the gently sloping lawn to their black Ford Windstar, got in and drove away, Agnes always at the wheel.
The Eks scoured every casino, massage parlor, horse track and bookmaker in the Lower Mainland. And there was an unexpected trace of Doug—his monthly VLT session at River Rock, each lasting about an hour. Either he would break even, win fifty to a hundred dollars or lose the same. Then he would leave, not having interacted with anybody apart from the teller behind bulletproof glass if he cashed out.
It goes without saying that Wendy and Klein were devastated by their loss, left confused and without closure. Klein would stay up, keeping a vigil of sorts, praying to a god he didn’t think he believed in, prayed and prayed until he was weeping, wept and wept until he fell asleep, his face in his hands. When he awoke his hands and face were one, fused by copious dry tears.
In Klein’s view his mother’s decision to remarry was tantamount to giving up hope that his father was alive and would one day return. He was correct. Wendy believed her husband was either dead or had abandoned them. Either way, as far as Wendy was concerned, Doug wasn’t coming back.
Klein had planned to become an air traffic controller under his father’s mentorship and tutelage, both during the course of study and throughout his on-the-job training. It was reputed to be a very difficult program. After his dad was gone Klein lost interest in applying altogether, let alone enrolling, attending, successfully completing and eventually taking on that critical responsibility. Klein wouldn’t even get behind the wheel. How would he guide numerous aircraft going 600 mph through four dimensions? he’d thought. Then he’d imagine a midair collision, the fireball and silent showering debris.
Wendy and Klein received counseling. Once his therapist asked him if he had any interests or hobbies, to re-channel the mental energy he put into grieving for his missing father. Klein said he liked to read on occasion, liked to learn. His therapist passed over a legal pad and got Klein to write down some of the topics he was curious about. Klein listed many, from entomology to Roman history, and machine learning to shaolin kung fu. Of course he had a library card, he just needed to use it a little more.
As he read and learned and time wore on, his curiosity spread further out toward the fringes and his imagination became more and more fecund. He developed a multitude of theories to explain his father’s disappearance. The following is an abridged list:
- Doug lived a double life in espionage and was disappeared by a transnational cabal who had infiltrated the upper echelons of Canadian trade, finance and transportation. He did get off the train but was immediately black-bagged by agents. The metro footage was doctored to look like he suddenly vanished, when really Doug was taken to Burns Bog, shot in the face and buried in an unmarked grave.
- Doug was an extra-terrestrial teleported back to his home planet following the completion of a mission to splice timelines. This required the positioning of airborne passenger jets into a code that opened a celestial combination lock.
- Two nearly identical dimensions passed through each other. Doug was scooped up by the twin dimension, but Doug’s doppelgänger remained in his original place, where Doug A and Doug B stood face to face, coming to terms with the paradox.
- The CCTV timecode dialed one of the original stargates constructed two billion years ago by the Ancient Builder Race. Doug walked through just as it opened and closed. He arrived on an inhabited planet in a system located on the edge of the Small Magellanic Cloud. He was catatonic, died soon after, and was given an honorable burial near the Monolith of Elders.
- Because Klein’s father was unfailingly kind to all, was a devoted husband and father, a humble man and devout Christian, by God’s grace he underwent apotheosis, was brought up to the heavenly gates, body and soul, and admitted by Saint Peter into Paradise.
- Through arduous Kundalini activation that Klein and Wendy were unaware of, Doug’s spectrum of frequency elevated the focus of his consciousness to a higher reality, and so, post hoc ergo propter hoc, experienced a full dimensional shift. He currently occupies this higher, more luminous reality.
- Crossing some etheric tripwire, Doug disintegrated into a trillion particles and each one was transmitted to one of a trillion galaxies that constitute the universe.
There were others, each less plausible than the one before. He found them an entertaining way to cope with his loss. But after a certain point the exercise appeared to him as it really was, ridiculous, and he felt no better, maybe worse.
Klein put on the Gnossiennes. He only listened to Erik Satie in certain fragile moods, when he felt especially off-balance. Tonight was one of those nights, when he thought he might tip off the face of the earth and explode into fragments of brittle flesh.
Whenever he was blue like this Klein made himself pancakes for supper. He took out a stainless steel mixing bowl, cracked a few eggs and eyeballed the flour, added buttermilk and whipped the concoction with an electric beater. His Teflon pan was clean on the stove. He sprayed it with Pam and let it warm, thought of Viola’s anecdote about turning televisions on and off in electronics showrooms as a kid. He’d press the power button, place his palm on the screen, still warm, then come back after a space of time, feel the screen once more, and it was cool. Viola said each time you turned off a piece of electronic equipment it was a tiny death. When you turned it on, a tiny birth.
He flipped the first pancake and it was thick, circular, golden. The aroma made his stomach growl. Klein laid each finished one on a platter, soon had a stack of five. The butter dish was covered on the table. He brought over syrup and a can of cut peaches, poured himself a slender glass of buttermilk.
As he ate his mind wandered and was ten years away in his parent’s kitchen in Hastings-Sunrise. He was sitting at this exact table, an heirloom, fiddling around with his new smartphone after school, when his father arrived home from work. He put on the kettle for tea, said he was “knackered,” asked Klein what he was up to. Klein said he was “deleting apps” and his father repeated the phrase “deleting apps” as though it was in a foreign language. They had laughed together then and Klein wept now. It was always some harmless recollection that caught him off guard, that brought him down, and he cried for a few minutes over his half-eaten pancakes, at the table that was the table in the memory. It was the same table but not the same table at all. It had more faint scratches on its surface, a chipped edge, and it was in his kitchen, not in the kitchen of his parents’ former home, in his mind.
He dabbed his eyes and blew his nose with a paper towel and finished off his pancakes, rich and soggy with butter, syrup and the wedges of peach, then went and stood in the living room in front of the window. Dark outside now, all he saw was his spectral likeness reflected there. The Gnossiennes finished and he listened to a soft bubbling that came from the refrigerator. It sounded just like an aquarium pump but he had no aquarium, no fish, no fish to feed and watch behind glass.
The only luxury in Klein’s austere life was an Epson Home Cinema 880 and a pull-down screen that faced the futon and coffee table. He had yet to dip into Viola’s video art. Whether right or wrong, good or bad, he had explored the Violalia first, the exegesis, instead of the works proper.
There were only fragmentary bootlegs of Viola’s stuff on YouTube, but it was a start. Klein sat on the futon below the projector’s susurrus and the cone of pleated light emitted from its lens. He looked at The Raft first. The footage was second-hand, shaky. Someone had filmed the plasma screen of the original installation with a camcorder, perhaps, or their phone. A group of people stood together like a crowd gathered on a metro platform, in slowmotion, almost still. No plot or narrative. The only interaction was a person jostling through the crowd to greet someone they recognized. No other indication was given of their internal selves, a suggestion of that sublime mystery which is simply the content of a stranger’s mind. Then came the high powered jets of water pummeling the group. Composed and self-contained seconds before, they grasped for someone close by, or they crouched and covered their faces, clothing plastered to their bodies, hair disordered, make-up running, each coping with the same hydraulic blasts from outside the frame.
Klein dug around online some more. He recognized from one of the Viola talks the title Five Angels for the Millennium, a five screen work at one time installed within the Gasometer at Oberhausen. There weren’t many clips that he could track down on the fly, but he watched one called Departing Angel several times. A figure slowly rises feet first up and out of dark water, gradually breaking the surface. Bubbles and turbulence surround the body in a shimmering blue cocoon. The sound is a low liquid gushing, that of the ear submerged. It wasn’t an image of the eye, but one of dreams, or eternity, of the unborn and the interred. He shut off the projector, sat in the dark for a while, let his mind wander. The plasma screen is a gate of light, he thought, it speaks in the language of sparks. It presses against and passes through and is skin between the visible and invisible world. It touches the untouchable. It emits the light and is the light. The light that does not travel at the speed of itself because it is always arriving at itself. The light that does not dim, he thought, the light that will not die.
— Dustin Cole is the author of the novel Notice (Nightwood Editions) and the poetry chapbook Dream Peripheries (General Delivery), as well as the forthcoming novel Run the Bead (Soyos Books). His writing has appeared in APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Maximus Magazine, Expat, Misery Tourism and Heavy Feather Review, in addition to several other publications.