By Jonathan Lethem, from “More Little Tales of the Internet,” published in Issue 59 of Conjunctions. Lethem is the author of many books, including, most recently, Fear of Music. His “Radisson Confidential” appeared in the October 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
He was a guy who was very much a big deal to see, in a kind of you-don’t-see-him-very-often way, as well as in a then-when-you-do-he’s-on-Skype kind of way. By reputation, not a guy who’d been leaving his house very often of late. Behind him was a marble mantelpiece with two flowerpots framing a mirror. In the mirror we could catch sight of the top of the back of his head but the angle wasn’t such that we could see more, say the table or desk where his computer sat, which would have set up a possible infinite regress of him, back of head, front of face visible in small Skype window, plus his view, in the larger window, of us all arrayed at the conference table (we’d have been pretty hard to make out in particular, really). No dice. He crowded the frame at an angle down-tilted, so we got about 25 percent forehead and brushed-back hairline and crown, above and around which we only caught glimpses of mantel and flowerpots and mirror, the rest of his features, of course, crowded, receding in perspective below, and then, busy in a small margin, his face, his hands, which entered the frame to worry at a small, round bandage or plaster on the point of his chin, no big deal at the outset. We were certainly not fixated on it at the outset, not with the truly and importantly big deal implicit in getting him onto the conference call to begin with. Who ever speaks up in a room like ours packed with colleagues to say to a face on Skype, Hey, you’re a little proximate, wanna ease back a tad? If he was too big, let him be too big — he was big. We were small and could see ourselves there: small, arrayed, awaiting. He wasn’t calling to have his approach to sitting in front of his computer adjusted by us. We were listeners.
It was maybe five minutes into what he was saying that the circular bandage or plastic kind of seemed to come off with his rubbing and worrying at it, likely the fault of his enthused declamation that his hands couldn’t keep still from their nervous action of scaling and itching around the perimeter of the thing — and that he couldn’t stop to notice. He sort of brushed it aside completely with the next reach-in from the bottom frame of the shot, and that was when the welling blood I guess first got smeared sideways a little. You could have taken it in the weird lighting and bad resolution for a black smear of interference, a breakdown in the image smoothing, but the earlier presence of the bandage or plaster cued us to the fact it was blood right away. Cued me, at least. I can’t actually speak for anyone else there at that table. It’s not like we were comparing notes. Maybe at that very first moment one of us might have been able to interject something, but we were hamstrung by our own numbers. Who’d want to be the one to pipe up in a room like that, plus anyway maybe he’d catch it himself with the aid of the little window showing him his own image nested inside of ours (though he’d hardly used that feedback to adjust his distance from the camera, had he?). Maybe, anyway, it wouldn’t get any worse, though the fast rate at which the blood had first welled up could have put a rest to any hopes along those lines. It got a whole lot worse.
They say every one of us touches his or her face an average of seven times per minute or something like that and I guess this must have some basis because it wasn’t long before he’d gone in again, and again after that. Of course some cool trickle must have alerted him at a semiconscious level but he was also completely caught up in his presentation, he was a guy who came out of a sales background to begin with and had now been in more of a development line for a while, had dropped from public view for a secret developmental period, during which apparently a certain sales imperative had been bottled up behind his covert man-of-mystery persona, and now that he had our ears he was pitching his only fractionally disclosable new product with everything he had. A talker who rarely got to talk anymore — my impression, for what it is worth. What stood out apart from the spread of the blood was a certain tic in his otherwise fairly brilliant presentation where he’d come to a perfectly apt word, omniscient, say, or compliance, or ambient, and then he’d pause and frame it, as though he wasn’t certain he hadn’t invented the word himself. “The product has a certain omniscient — omniscient, is that even a word?” Or “Ambient — is that even a word?” As though in his years of woodshedding secretly to develop the new line he’d forgotten which parts of the world he’d left behind were and weren’t projections of his own brain. So there was that tic — “Ubiquity, is that even a word?” — that, and the blood now smearing everywhere, daubs on his forehead and on the tip of his nose, as he quite unfortunately under the circumstances turned out to be one of those persons who enact thoughtful reflection by stroking the forehead or tugging on the nose’s tip. Several of his fingers, for those moments they entered the frame, seemed pretty much to be just like a kindergartner’s finger-painting implements by now, I mean, bloodied to that extent. None of us said anything. We’d gone from thinking it was no big deal to admiring him for toughing it out — here’s the sort of thing, we thought for an instant, that separates guys like this guy from guys like us who sit wondering if it’s even a breach of protocol to reach for the bottles of water they’ve placed before us around the conference table — to realizing something should have been said quite a while before. His fingers were likely getting tacky with blood — the best hope would be for it to dry somewhat and alert him with its adhesion to some dry surface — but instead he went back again and again to the well of his chin and soon had slickly painted himself to the point of resembling one of those crazy guys you see in the stands at a football game. God help you, ending up in a seat beside guys like that. It was at this point that he seemed to become self-conscious of something, not what he should have been, I guess, or he’d likely have said something, but instead he maybe had an impulse to modulate his distance from the camera at last, and so reached out, the blood-black fingers growing abruptly huge and blurred, as when in underwater photography a shark’s nose investigates a diver’s lens, and then we found the whole screen obliterated in what I can only suppose was a single fingerprint. The guy bleeding all over Skype just went on talking.