by Karen Bookman Kaplan
A professional inter-dimensional traveler, Iris Perle, is visiting a dimension she calls “Upward Spiral.” Her presence there cannot be detected. As events unfold she more and more intensely longs to be known to a sculptor named Clara and her friends, whom she has observed many times before. Iris’ yearnings lead to a surprise revelation, and Clara finds an answer to longings of a different sort.
Returning to Risington, a distracted Clara charges into her gallery first, displacing her home to no better than second in priority. She may be anxious that the city sculpture will melt away before she has had the chance to rescue it from its lifelessness with her cache of inspirations. But no cruel loss of coolant has spirited her work into the formlessness of moisture or to the doom of evaporation.
She sets right to work, as if deterioration would set in if she failed to sculpt in time. From what I observe, the message she gets from her archaeological treasures is to lighten up her city. She adds an amusement park among the other buildings. Its predominance triumphantly relegates the other creations of her city into second place status.
She puts a clown, magician, musician or juggler on every street corner, using the buttons to suggest their faces. Next she adds frilly curtains in many windows; they hang down, curved, like a smile. One figurine is poised with a button in hand that suggests a Frisbee. Others are rolling an oversized ball that had formerly been one of the marbles over to a playground.
To what would horrify conservationists, at least where I come from, she shaves off sections of the puzzle pieces so that they will never again fit back together. She further removes them from their original destiny by not laying them flat. She makes one piece into an oblong, and places it in a clown’s hand at an angle that makes him seem to be checking his appearance in a looking glass.
She takes some of the others, made into rectangles with scalloped tops, and builds an outer wall to reinforce the ‘in versus out’ statement of the jail and school. As for the mock white snow, she at least at the moment has not yet chosen how to use it in her model city or has decided not to use it at all.
But then Clara does take hold of the putty and starts to squeeze it, and then knead it. She looks contented, so maybe she is playing with it. If I were she, I would be worried about ruining unknown material from older times, and I am puzzling over why she, as well as the archaeologists, are not concerned about ensuring the preservation of antique or potentially scientifically valuable relics. It occurs to me to ponder if the archaeologists have something else in mind that they are searching for, even something classified.
As she continues to manipulate the material, it becomes luminous, like those glow-in-the-dark wands and bracelets that pop up at outdoor events as evening takes command. She at first releases the luminous material with some alarm. But curiosity wins over and she resumes working it with a satisfied look on her face, as if nothing but nothing is going to intimidate her, of all people.
She makes space for it in the amusement park by smoothing it down to form a generous circle. She fashions ice skates from metal and black leather (black snow is apparently as fantastical as white, thus the skates and the archaeological materials are the only exceptions to this sculpture that otherwise consists of snow and ice) and sets them up on a stand next to what is now an ice rink.
She then decides to add some action, placing one figurine in the act of pulling on a pair of skates, while another, who has beat him to being appropriately equipped, has clearly reached his desired cruising speed and is skating confidently out of gripping distance of the sides.
Clara writes in her idea book:
What shall I call the sculpture? Maybe ‘Look Sharp, you Urban Planners!’ You gotta be kidding. Let’s be serious girl. Getting back to some details: the white ice in the rink may seem out of place. Too threatening to the viewer? Not too much for people to imagine a white but harmless dye has been added to cover up its true color. And the glow could come from concealed lights from underneath.
But I’m worried that the glow will fade and run out. Or maybe I should be worried that it will increase. That could be worse; because if it gets too bright, it will unbalance the attention paid to other parts of the city, or even hurt the viewer’s eyes. Or even become like a miniature sun that has spun out of control. Well, if that happens I’ll have to remove it and box it up. Never have had to worry about a sculpture changing on me before, let alone become dangerous.
She firmly clamps shut her notebook and heads home.
* * *
She lives on Copper Court, off of Gypsum Road, in one of the Artist Complexes. The living arrangements of the populace are one of the things I admire most here. Each Complex is like a combination apartment building and commune with an onsite health team. Persons of all ages and states of health, united by a common interest, live in each Complex, although the downside of this for couples is deciding whose interest will determine where they live.
A partial solution is to live in one of the “general interest” complexes, with such broad themes as “Board Games,” “Outdoor Sports,” “College Educated,” and “Dessert Lovers.” (One issue, however, for taxpayers about the last one is the greater reliance of those tenants on the health team.)
Since Clara is now a widow, she had had only herself to debate with in choosing her current residence. Because of these Complexes, nursing homes are so scarce that only the most convoluted chain of merciless events results in having to inhabit one.
Clara enters her apartment, which looks like any standard apartment in our own dimension (maybe some things are truly universal or multi-universal). But in Upward Spiral there are always subtle riffs on the familiar: a juice container she removes from the refrigerator is just marked “fruit juice,” since all fruit flavors are the same, as are all vegetable flavors. Therefore usually a cornucopia of fruits is pictured rather than any particular one.
The mug she leisurely pours the juice into has a most fetching feature: no cutesy flowers and no worn-out humor that damns the user into seeing it time after time. Instead, dots all over the outer surface emit points of light, some of which arc down towards the saucer like shooting stars bedding down into the horizon. The rest of the points end up on anything a few inches away, usually the hands involved with lifting the mug. Looking like another species of freckles, they commingle with Clara’s more permanent kind.
“I wonder what I should be doing next,” she says to herself. In short order, tears skid down her face, making their own way down to the saucer.
Maybe she feels lonely, or feels let down about her sculpture. This in turn dissipates my recent dislike of her and defrosts my own sadness, too long coiled up and frozen. I now cry too, and although I cannot cross the dimensional barrier and comfort her, I feel I have crossed an infrequently visited dimension within myself.
There had been many other barriers I pounded on besides the one between me in the back porch and Mom in the dining room. The signals I had lobbed over and over from my confined quarters to the outside world went unheard or were misinterpreted. I was left in isolation or at most given a stingy toehold in the least frequented areas of dwellings and playgrounds. I was never fully present in any one place, neither at home or at school or at play.
* * *
Clara puts notes to Hubert, Rose, and Gray in the Instacommunicator and invites them to drop by the gallery to talk about the dig and to see how the urban sculpture has changed as a result. They realize, because she used the Instacommunicator, that her need to see them is keen.
Gray responds first, suggesting they all meet later today, followed closely by Hubert and Rose who eagerly agree. As she confirms the meeting time her face’s wet history is as covered up as the layers beyond the archaeologists’ reach.
Gray arrives first, dressed in olive-green pants bound with a thick black belt, and light gray shirt. These are the colors he always wears. It seems that the norm here for dress is for each person to wear their “signature” combination of colors or choice of dominant color.
Thus, when Rose enters, she is wearing red all over like last time, as if her clothes were externally echoing the blood everywhere present beneath her skin. Hubert enters along with her, and his garments are mostly blue, whose monotony is cut short by the blessed interruption of a gold and purple belt.
To complete the picture, I should mention that Clara usually wears tan and chocolate-brown clothing, perked up most commonly with sparkling green or orange jewelry. This is just when I wish I could ask some questions of the people here, such as: is wearing characteristic colors the vestige of having had to wear a uniform distinguishing them as members of some particular caste? Or is it simply for the pleasure of it? Another puzzle is the absence of white attire, which is as conspicuous as Sherlock Holmes’ non-barking dog.
As the four converse, Clara realizes more and more what has disturbed her about the archaeological trip and her misgivings about the objects they gave her and the effect upon her sculpture. She wonders if there is anything to worry about concerning the glowing white substance, the putty.
Gray, who as I said is a chemist, offers to take some of it and analyze it. As is to be expected, he also focuses on the possible sinister implications of what the archaeologists really want.
Hubert cannot help but react. “I think we are being overly suspicious. If they were hiding something, then I don’t see why they would have taken the risk of letting lay people participate, especially as they could not know what they might stumble upon during the digs themselves and how they might react to discoveries in front of nosy volunteers. Doesn’t make sense unless there was nothing for them to fear or to conceal.”
“Then why,” Gray persists, “would they cavalierly be turning over these particular objects to Clara without at a minimum having analyzed them first? They must be after something else that is either very powerful or very valuable, or at least of great academic interest. I think these were a decoy to distract her from seeing what else they were up too.”
Maybe Clara was going to admonish him; instead she has an inspiration. “You know the white material, I mean this putty, did not start to glow until after I started using it; maybe they were looking for material with this strange property but did not realize they had found it because it takes time for it to become apparent.”
“Aha!” continues Gray, “if that’s it, then it must have some desirable property.” Hubert agrees, and says they are fortunate to have possession of it. And maybe they are, as Rose, for the first time in recent memory, looks very absorbed by the conversation. She is actually smiling and leans in to have the sculpture fill up more of her visual field.
They all stare at it, especially at the glowing white ice rink. Clara impulsively takes some of the remaining putty for everyone to touch. As with any putty, it is begging to be squeezed, and everyone, even the suspicious Gray, wants to let themselves in on its secret despite the potential risks. To give them all credit, none is unduly afraid of any potential toxic effect.
If they were in my dimension, I imagine a quite different scenario, where they might think a military or medical secret were involved and so be very careful about moving the suspect white stuff around or analyzing it in a lab, let alone touch it to work into a sculpture or even worse squeeze it in abandon.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Karen Bookman Kaplan