According to the notice, Don would be completely invisible by the early hours of tomorrow morning.
According to the notice, Don would be completely invisible by the early hours of tomorrow morning. He had already read it twice. It always happened top to bottom. He stood barefoot in his living room clutching the thick envelope, trying to deal with it. There was his job as the manager of a pool of database engineers; tomorrow he would be laid off with generous compensation. You couldn’t have a transparent manager, he knew. Psychologists had shown that workplace stress was increased by the introduction of fades. He checked his watch. It wasn’t the thought of losing his job that made his teeth scrape together. There were other papers in the envelope, Don noticed. It was stuffed.
He read the notice again, which began along the lines of regret to inform and ended along the lines of deepest sympathies, then crossed the small condo, heading for the bathroom. Along the way he tried to give the coffee table a good kick, but connected accidentally with his shin. It was a glass table on a metal frame. Tears sprang up. Maybe it was those damned deepest sympathies that made his hands ball into fists. It must be so, he thought; but it wasn’t. He tugged his hair and checked his watch. He grimaced.
Don had known others to turn invisible, of course. They usually didn’t get out much afterwards. Nobody liked fades — can’t tell who they’re looking at, can’t tell them apart except by their clothes. He thought of the floating toques and snow jackets that stood next to him on streetcars, the grotesquely gesturing mittens. Hats and gloves were necessary by law: fair’s fair. Invisible men and women mumbled about the city in cheap dollar-store scarves, collecting their pensions. He would have to buy a toque, airport orange like his father’s had been. Don shouted “Damn it!” but the carefully decorated apartment had few flat surfaces, and that the sound just didn’t carry as far as he’d hoped.
In the bathroom mirror he saw that the smooth curve of his haircut had been lopped flat. His heart raced unevenly — for an instant he saw pinpricks of swirling lights. How long until he was nothing but legs, shins, ankles, toes? It always happened top to bottom. Nobody knew why. He touched the invisible hairs, felt them with his fingertips. It could happen to anyone. He flung open the cabinet, tossed aside his electric razor to reveal a host of bottles, most of which he didn’t recognize: hers. He picked one up at random, hoping to do something clever with it, but after lathering the sticky foam into his hair for a few moments he had to give up. Light glossing on invisible hair was unsettling. He balled up a towel and hurled it into the bathtub. The foamy stuff was stupid and made him look stupid. He carefully replaced the bottle inside the cabinet, then slammed the mirror shut. It rebounded and hung open.
Don paced the living room, watching his feet brush circles around the glass coffee table. His arms pumped. On the wall hung their black-and-white photo of an alleyway in Milan, a lucky snapshot taken in a moment of inspiration, now brought to life again by the January sun that poured down the skylight. The air in the concrete living room was chilly. He watched his bare feet make circles. They would be the last to go.
The envelope lay on the glass table. He paused to glance at it, then resumed pacing. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. What was left to say? He’d buy his dollar-store gloves and orange toque and shuffle around the city collecting a pension and glances. Fair’s fair. Their patronizing attitude made him sick, sending all those colourful inserts. That must be it, he thought, their patronizing attitude; they figured he couldn’t deal with it. That’s what was bothering him, he thought. But that wasn’t it.
He would have to dig out his sunglasses. He would have to pull up his socks. Would it help? Young mothers would take their children’s hands as he passed. He checked his watch and scowled. By now his forehead must be fading, and he wondered vaguely whether he might tilt his head just so to view the interior of his skull; but he didn’t let himself glance at the glass tabletop, or at the mirrorlike picture frame. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
As he circled past the windowsill Don noticed dead leaves on the potted fern: ugly, brown ringlets. He stopped because she had told him to keep an eye on that. Keeping the fern alive was important to her. As he plucked at the ringlets, he told himself that this happened to people all the time. A gym teacher in the fifth grade, Mr. Tierbach, had been replaced midway through the year by a nervous young woman. Don remembered the principal’s announcement at assembly. You couldn’t have an invisible rugby coach; it set a bad example. But it could happen to anybody, the principal insisted — it was just something you dealt with. Don picked up the envelope and sat down on the sofa, leafing through it. He would read the inserts in order and he would keep his cool.
A pale tan pamphlet, Adjusting to Your Invisible Life. Ten useful tips. Number two restated the law of gloves and a hat. Number six suggested reducing strangers’ anxiety with ABCD: Announce yourself, use Body-language, and Create Distance. Number eight discouraged breaking the news to family members in person: Use the telephone, it insisted, and give them time. He crumpled up the page and threw it hard, but it only travelled to the far end of the tabletop. The stiff paper didn’t ball up well.
A lavender sheet listing inspirational celebrities who had faded. Don set it aside with a scowl.
A powder-blue brochure titled Popular Myths and Misconceptions. He recognized this one. It began, “Popular-culture portrayals of photoreflectively impaired persons often showcase criminal activity, mental instability and generally anti-social behaviour. Studies suggest, however, that most such persons live quiet but fulfilling lives, and many remark that they come to prefer their retreat from the public sphere.”
“Horseshit!” Don’s father had said, slapping the fir post that stood next to him. Father and son sat in armchairs before a wood stove. Don’s father leafed through his envelope. Only his ankles were now visible, and Don noticed that they were bonier than he’d expected, covered over with crooked white hairs. “Liberal city horseshit,” he barked; each word sounded equally damning. “Retreat from the public? In Wells, a man is seen. He is known.”
Don rolled his eyes. “It can happen to anyone, dad. Need me to get you anything, or anything for the house?” It was a small home that Don’s father had built on three wooded acres hugging a bend in the Wells river.
“This morning I had to sell off the gas pumps,” came his father’s disembodied voice. “Whole rest of the store won’t be long now, either. Pat took them off my hands and I had the pleasure of watching him pay through his teeth. Almost double what he should have.” Don heard his father once again slap the slapped-smooth beam. “Well, what else could he do?”
Don stood up. “Look, I flew down to see if you were okay. Okay? So let’s deal with this. You got enough wood for the winter? You need me to bring some in?”
“Tell you something, though,” his father muttered. “Once it’s gotten me for keeps, I’m gonna be the worst invisible man they ever saw.” Don crossed his arms as his father rumbled on. “They want me to disappear? Forget it. Scabby bandages, real grubbers, and that old black coat your mother said made me look like a gravedigger—”
“‘Undertakerish’,” corrected Don. “You need any groceries?”
“That’s right, too. Undertakerish. I’ll stand at the corner in town, by the new Chinese joint. Spook up the place — they’ll buy it, too. And when the weather breaks, I can go out buck-naked, and then …” The glow of the fireplace tightened the room around the two men as Don listened impatiently to his father’s ambitions for raising hell.
But the next time Don visited, they spent the week watching police dramas and playing gin rummy. “I don’t like going out there,” his father whimpered. “Everyone’s half-watching, waiting for somebody to bump into me, or the bank teller to forget me in line. No. I won’t let them have the satisfaction. And when I tried to go naked, Donny, the breeze.” Don’s father took to stoking the wood stove until it blazed hot enough that he could move about invisibly, on tiptoes. He whispered from room to room. He began sitting quietly for long periods in strange places, down behind the bed or wedged between the stairs and the kindling basket, so that when he passed away the family was presented with an uncomfortable problem finally resolved by the recollection of his silver fillings and a rented metal detector.
Now Don finished the Myths and Misconceptions brochure and glanced at himself in the glass tabletop: His eyebrows were long gone. “Screw it!” he shouted, but his voice squealed unexpectedly. His father had deluded himself. Pranks? Childish. It’s not how you dealt with it. He checked his watch and scowled. He punched the sofa. His fist bounced back. The memory of his father must still be irking him, he thought. But that wasn’t it.
There was only one more slip of paper. Don resolved not to read it. He took the envelope and all of its contents and tore them to pieces, then threw the pieces about the room — confetti. He picked up the pieces and tore them into smaller pieces and threw them again. Some scraps lodged into the black-and-white photograph’s frame and as he gingerly plucked them out he saw in the glass that his eyes were beginning to fade, top to bottom. He clenched his bare toes and tugged his hair. It could happen to anyone, he reminded himself.
Don shook his head. He wondered what the last brochure had been. His nostrils stretched as he imagined an advertisement for the sort of peer-counselling workshops he’d tried to get his father to attend. He scowled as he pictured himself sitting with six other invisible men and women, all audibly slouched, probably in a high-school classroom with parts of the human anatomy labelled on a blackboard. He and the others wouldn’t be able to exchange knowing glances. Their conversation would be stiff and rhythmic, the way speeches are made to a large audience. A perky thirty-something facilitator with hair falling over her shoulders would pace concentric circles and talk about dealing with it. Her only qualification would be a practised way of guessing eye contact. Don would have nowhere else to look but at her, and perhaps he would come to her after the sessions and she would say, “Should we?” with big frightened eyes and he would have her on one of the desks that was still scrawled on by yesterday’s teens.
Don checked his watch. He sat down on the sofa, then stood up. His heart raced unevenly. The late-afternoon sun poured down the skylight. In the glass of the coffee table, he saw that there was nothing left above his lower jaw. Molars poked out of soft pink gums, the root of his tongue glistened in the light, like mousse on invisible hair. He plucked at paper scraps, mechanically tearing smaller and smaller pieces — snuff. His shiftless anger had retreated to a place in his lower guts, swollen and difficult to breathe around. He unclenched his toes. Those “deepest sympathies” must still bothering him, he thought. But that wasn’t it.
In less than an hour she would open the door and kick off her boots onto the carpet, and when she did, there would be nothing left of Don above the collar. She would realize they’d already exchanged their last long glance and he would realize he’d gazed at her until she blushed for the last time. That was it.