Ed kept his ego in the hall closet. He stored it in a teak box, beside his wife's cardboard-boxed ego, their dusty frame packs and tent, and the Manhattan phone directories.
A Wall Street lawyer, his father had given him the ego on his tenth birthday. His father also gave him a pack of small shammy cloths and a tin of carnauba wax. And each Saturday, after cleaning his room, and putting the ego through the mirror exercises his father showed him, Ed polished it, applying a light layer of wax, then vigorously buffing the ego with a square of shammy, until it took on the dull sheen of a jade egg. Through high school and college, his ego grew nicely. By the time he finished law school, his ego was quite mature, and in size and beauty ranked well against those of his peers.
The law commencement was held in the school's grass courtyard on a lovely spring day. The sky was blue, and the wisteria vines on the old ivied buildings overflowed with lavender blossoms. In the audience of proud parents, spouses and friends, their egos resting in their laps and at their feet, Ed's father and mother watched with joy, as he stepped to the stage and, in tasseled cap and flowing black gown, received his law diploma from the Dean. His parents thanked God that he had toned down his radicalism and chosen to practice law. When the commencement was over, Ed walked his parents to their car. Along the way, they were stopped by his fellow graduates, who complimented him on his ego's shine and fitness.
"That's my boy," his father told Georgine and Hal, two of Ed's classmates from labor law. His father fingered his old ring from Harvard, the crimson stone sparkling in the sun. "Took lots of guidance from the old man to get him here."
Two years later, Ed married. When he and Ellen moved into their apartment on West Ninety-Sixth Street, he packed his ego in the teak box (a graduation gift from his Aunt Harriet and Uncle Bill), and put the box on the shelf in the hall closet. He kept the box on the shelf through the early seventies. When he felt particularly troubled by events in the world—by the war America was still waging in Vietnam—he removed his ego from the teak box, stuffed it into a litigation bag, and took the ego to the midtown law firm where he worked. He found having his ego in his office helped in hallway debates with the firm's more belligerent warmongers, and with the hotheaded young mailroom clerk Jorge, who always ended his and Ed's discussions about the War by storming away from his postage machine, and—thinking Ed couldn't hear—muttering, "¡Me cage en tu madre! You liberal hypocrite. You asshole."
But over the years, Ed mostly left his ego on the shelf in the hall closet. He only removed the ego from its box on his birthday, the afternoon and morning his daughter Lizzie and son Eddie were born, the night he and Ellen and friends celebrated his making partner with moules a 1'ail at Provence, then bar hopped and danced till dawn.
One day, in the new millennium, a small ad on the back of The Village Voice caught his eye:
Bothered by Guilt?
Dissatisfied with Your Life?
Do It Now!
Curious, Ed dialed the letters, but the number was busy. He tried every day for the next week, but couldn't get through. Lately, he had been troubled by an annoying little gnome that had taken up residence in his head. He had a wonderful wife, a delightful daughter and son—a good career—but whenever he felt happy for more than three days, there came this damn dump-da-da-dump from the tiny creature tap dancing through the corridors of his brain. Sometimes when he closed his eyes, he could see the little bastard. It resembled a hunchbacked old man in miniature, with wrinkled skin and a long gray beard. The gnome wore jungle boots and tiger-stripe fatigues, and carried on its hunched back a radio pack with a whip antenna, from which came, though the war had long ended, crackling transmissions between what sounded like an artillery commander and the forward observer of an American battalion.
"... Gundriver, this is Sheepdog ..."
"... Sheepdog, this is Gundriver—I read you five-bye ..."
"... Gundriver, Sheepdog requests fire-mission . . . Target alpha-bravo zero zero two niner . . .
Gooners in the open . .. Willypeter one round . . . Range three hundred meters . . . Fire on command ..."
Sometimes, he heard Vietnamese voices fading in and out with the static.
When the gnome's tap dancing came while he was in his office, instead of revising a client's contract, Ed found himself staring at the red Paine-Webber logo on the building across the street, the hoary little gnome tap dancing heavily along the folds and lines of his brain, now and then tuning in an explosion-riddled exchange from the front line.
"... OK Corral, this is Little Brother . . . Gooners hit ... Casualties: five killed, three wounded . . .Troops dispersin'. . . End of mission, over ..."
"... Little Bro', this is OK Corral. . . Glad to be of assistance ..."
Even when things in his head were quiet, Ed occasionally wondered whether his life was all it could be. On weekends at home with Ellen and Little Eddie, he sometimes found himself standing on the terrace, staring blankly across the Hudson at New Jersey, while Eddie watched cartoons from the couch, and Ellen sat in the den, poring over her proofreading. At times like this, he felt life's deeper meaning had passed him by, though he couldn't figure when, or which way he should run to chase it down.
One Tuesday in his office, he got through to TADESNA. A serene young woman answered, and he asked her about the group. The young woman told him TADESNA stood for Those Alarmed by the Dwindling Ego Stock in North America. A man named Tupai Abei had formed the group, she said, and had developed SEE, the Seminar for Ego Enhancement.
Tupai Abei believed that only by communicating with and strengthening their egos could people end the suffering and unhappiness in the world. Before one—white, black, brown or yellow—could love another, Tupai held, one had to love and properly care for one's ego. The young woman said besides moving the world closer to international brother- and sisterhood, paying better attention to his ego would help Ed achieve a less stressful and more satisfying existence. But if he wanted to know more, he should come to TADESNA's introductory lecture, held each Monday evening at St. Mary's on West Twelfth Street. The young woman told him to bring his ego.
Ed was cynical. Not since the sixties had he encountered an outfit so optimistic about improving the world. And the young woman had sounded optimistic to the point of being naive. But it was years since he'd spoken to someone so self-assured, and so at peace with herself. TADESNA might help him get rid of the gnome, or teach him how to deal with its noise.
The next morning, he went to the warehouse on Fifty-eighth Street, west of Eleventh Avenue, where he'd moved his ego three years ago, after it had outgrown the teak box, and the space on the closet shelf. At the warehouse, he gently lifted his ego from the dusty storage case, then lowered it into the display crate he'd brought. He and the Sikh cabdriver loaded the crate into the taxi's trunk, tied down the trunk with rope, and drove the ego to his apartment.
When Monday evening came, Ed called a cab, and again loaded his ego in the trunk. Riding downtown in the back seat, he dozed. The night before, the gnome had kept him up till three-thirty, with its tap dancing and bloody battle transmissions. But he knew the little bastard was too tired from last night's antics to annoy him tonight, and as he half-slept in the back seat, he dismissed the gnome from his mind, and optimistically thought ahead to the lecture.
St. Mary's was a magnificent old Gothic church of soot-darkened stone, with peaked buttresses, a tall steeple topped by a spire, and two round, stained-glass windows on its Twelfth Street side. The lights in the church were on, and as the cabby leafed through his money roll for singles, through the taxi's side window Ed admired the blue, yellow and red triangles of glass forming the Nativity scene, and the other stained-glass window of Christ and his apostles. Above the side doors, a crimson and cream banner flapped in the cool evening breeze. The banner read:
SEMINAR FOR EGO ENHANCEMENT (SEE)
THE WAY TO A HAPPIER AND LESS STRESSFUL LIFE—
AND A BETTER WORLD FOR ALL!
Ed managed, with some help from the cabby, to carry the display crate with his ego into the church. Inside, huge fluted columns rose in support of the stone vaults high above. The distant marble altar was decorated in white linen laced with gold, tall white candles, and yellow and tangerine tulips. To the right of the altar stood a lectern covered with a cream-colored cloth, the crimson letters SEE embossed on it. Below the sanctuary and off to the right were racks of prayer candles, and beyond the candles, sunk into the old sandstone wall, stood a large painted statue of the Virgin Mary.
Ed dragged and carried his display crate to a rear pew, left the crate in the aisle, and sat down beside it. Fanned out before him were a few other early arrivals, their egos beside them. One man's ego was four feet tall, and shaped like an erect penis. Across the aisle from Ed sat an elegant blond woman in an ermine stole, who had dressed her ego in a chinchilla hat and dangling diamond earrings. Now and then the woman bent over and cooed to her ego, and stroked its chinchilla hat.
In the next half hour, many people walked through the church's ornately carved doors. There was a man Ed's age in an impeccably tailored white tuxedo, whose ego surged from his lapel as a five-foot scarlet rose. A group of well-dressed senior citizens entered, waving huge gray pennants that said Old People Do It Wisely, and together they claimed the front pew, beside a redheaded, ruddy-faced couple with three-foot buttons pinned to their backs. The buttons read, in bright emerald green. Thank God We're Irish!
In the pews before him were conservatively dressed people, chicly dressed people, straight and gay people. There were tight-jeaned and long-haired rock 'n rollers, old housewives in beehives, young mothers in black tights pushing infants in strollers. Three pews up and to his right sat an artist, whose ego was a large color photo of the endangered rainforest jaguar, with text. There were people in monogrammed mink maxis, people in green fluorescent capes, retirees with gold-crested walking sticks. There were bronzed, Italian-suited young professionals with three-foot Platinum Cards. There were middle-aged analysts, young massage therapists, old bankers, with egos shaped every which way, from an exquisitely coiffed poodle in sapphire-studded collar and matching G-string, to an entourage of dancing gold chains and Italian horns led by a hairy-chested man in an unbuttoned shirt, to a two-foot silver charge card from Bloomingdales, and four linked wedding bands on wheels a handsome sheik pulled down the center aisle by a string. One elegantly dressed man, with a permanent frown etched in his face, carried his ego in the shape of a tremendously oversized book. As the frowning man passed on his way to a front pew, Ed saw the book was titled The Stress of Life.
There were also a few general egos, like Ed's, with no specific shape.
At seven, TADESNA's speaker, a burly, balding man in a cream velvet suit and crimson tie, walked to the SEE-embossed lectern. Speaking confidently into the microphone, the man introduced himself as Herb Taylor. He was a successful consultant for small businesses, he said, and had taken the Seminar seven years ago.
"SEE dramatically improved my life," Taylor said, stroking his velvet lapel. He scanned the pews with a smile. "That's why I'm here. Not because I get a huge salary. Or a commission for whoever takes the training. But because I want to share with you the seminar that worked for me."
Ed noticed Taylor was staring at him, with an intensity that made Ed look away. Then Taylor's large animated eyes combed the others in the pews.
"What can I say," Taylor said grinning. "I get off helping people find fulfillment."
After Ed and his neighbors in the rear pews moved forward, as Taylor had instructed, the SEE representative traced the history of TADESNA, and talked about its founder, Tupai Abei. Then Taylor got to the issue of why they'd come.
"Each of you is here," Taylor said, his deep, amplified voice bouncing off the stone vaults high above, "because you're unhappy." He raised his voice for emphasis. "And you're keeping yourself from being happy. Not some thing outside or above. You are preventing yourself from achieving your deepest goals."
Taylor noisily disengaged the microphone from the lectern, then made his way down the altar and up the center aisle.
"As I look around," he said beaming, "I see many lovely egos." He stopped across from Ed's pew, and stroked the chinchilla-capped ego of the blond woman. The woman's ego purred.
"Wonderfully rich and interesting egos," Taylor said smiling, starting back to the altar. At the first step, he stopped and turned.
"But how many of you really know your ego?" he asked harshly. "How many of you have a real connection to your ego? And know its deepest needs and wants?"
Ed and his neighbor, a woman in a leather jumpsuit and lemon beret, exchanged looks at Taylor's sudden sternness. Ed wondered if he should have heeded Ellen's warning and not come. "They're all egomaniacs," she had said, as he kissed little Eddie goodnight in the kitchen. "Better watch out. They'll turn you into one."
Ed leaned toward the woman in the lemon beret.
"What happened to the stuff about improving the world?" he whispered.
The woman thought for a moment. "I don't know," she whispered back. "Maybe it comes later."
Having gotten no response from the audience. Herb Taylor mounted the altar's steps, and returned to the lectern.
"I would guess not many," he said, disappointed, flipping a page in his crimson binder. Then Taylor's face burst into a brilliant smile. And Ed saw that, though a bit weird, the SEE representative was satisfied with life in a way he was not.
"But that's why we're here this evening," Taylor said cheerfully. "That's what TADESNA and SEE are about: Getting in touch with your ego's needs. So you may lead a happier life."
Ed looked at his display-crated ego in the aisle. Though he'd always taken decent care of it, he realized he'd never talked to his ego. He regretted the years he'd wasted. And after Taylor fielded questions from the audience, Ed lined up at the table the TADESNA assistants had set up beside the prayer candles. When his turn came, he wrote a check for the Seminar's full amount. Signing the check as Taylor looked on, Ed felt strangely ecstatic: He was on his way to making his life more satisfying. And not once in the two-hour lecture had he heard from the gnome. It was as if the little sucker knew SEE would evict it from his head, and was too busy packing to tap dance or tune in a battle.
The following Saturday, Ed arrived early with his ego at TADESNA's midtown center. As he and Herb Taylor sat in the cream and crimson lounge, Taylor told him he was fortunate he'd signed up when he had. First, he had registered and paid the day before the Seminar was increased by five hundred dollars. More importantly, Taylor told him, he'd registered for the session Tupai Abei, down from Vermont for a week on business, had decided to lead. Ed eagerly waited for the others to arrive. For the entire week there had not been a sound from the gnome, not even a little soft shoe, or a burst of static. He'd had a week of sleep-filled nights, and felt rested and energized, ready to seize control of his life.
By five to nine, all hundred and sixty-eight participants had arrived with their egos, and Herb Taylor led them, in their stocking feet and without their watches, to a large cream room in the back. The low-ceilinged room had crimson drapes, and one hundred and sixty-eight crimson cushions, arranged before a cream platform. On the platform was a crimson director's chair. On one side of the room stood a Poland Spring water cooler, and a paper cup dispenser. The walls of the room were blank. There were no clocks, posters or paintings to distract them, and though he listened hard, Ed couldn't hear a sound from East Thirty-eighth Street below.
He recognized a few faces and egos from the lecture. Across the room was the hairy-chested man in his unbuttoned shirt, with his small troupe of dancing gold chains and Italian horns. Beside the hairy-chested man was the sheik, with his four linked wedding bands on wheels. The blond woman and her chinchilla-capped ego were there, beside a thick Black bodybuilder in a blue sweatshirt, across which was written, in bold white letters: TRADERS make the. market move. And there were many, many others.
At nine, a short slender man with pure white hair entered the room. Ed realized it was Tupai Abei. Tupai wore a beige T-shirt and worn jeans. As Tupai walked around the room and hugged each participant, Ed sensed in him a certain magic. When the older man stepped up to embrace him, Ed saw in Tupai's eyes an assertive, yet serene intensity.
After he hugged everyone, Tupai mounted the platform, and sat in his director's chair. He got right down to business. The Seminar would be divided into two parts, he said. Today would deal with ego connection, tomorrow ego expansion.
They worked in pairs, following Tupai's instructions, which the SEE founder calmly delivered from the platform. Ed and his partner Tom, a realtor from the East Village, helped rid each other of their childhood baggage: their calcified and crusty resentment toward their parents, and emotional scar tissue from fistfights in playgrounds, unfair punishment from nuns, and nasty names they'd been called at school. The exercises Tupai put them through were strenuous, and at times so emotional Ed and Tom cried. But after seven hours, they'd freed themselves of their early hurts and pains. Instead of feeling fatigued, Ed felt energized—weightless—as if he'd tossed out half the emotional junk he had warehoused inside.
"The final phase of today's training is the most difficult," Tupai told them, when they returned at five from their dinner break. "Now begins the process of ridding yourselves of your adult-acquired guilt."
"Guilt," Tupai said, rising from his chair, "guilt is the killer of all life, and all happiness." He paused, rubbed the flanks of his jeans, then looked around the room supportively.
"You must let go of guilt," Tupai told them. "Whatever you do is good. Whoever you are is good. And don't let your Catholic background, or your Jewish background, or your whatever background make you feel ashamed to live life fully, to seize every chance to soar."
At first, Ed had an easy time of erasing his adult guilt. With the help of Sharon, a securities analyst from Hoboken, he eliminated from his unconscious mind many strains of guilt he'd acquired since turning eighteen, and with those blocks gone, exchanged his first words with his ego.
"Hi," he said to the green mass in the display crate beside him.
His heart jumped when his ego croaked, in a raspy, unused voice, "Eddie, I'm thirsty. Get me water. Ed got a cup of Poland Spring from the water cooler. He sprinkled some on his ego, christening their new relationship.
"Is that better?" Ed asked.
"I want the cookies in your pocket," his ego demanded.
Ed laughed This little guy did know everything about him. After checking that none of the TADESNA assistants were watching, he brought out the small pack of vanilla creams he'd snuck into the room. Before he could remove the wrapper, his ego squeezed a part of its green self through the display crate s slats, and sucked up the cookies, cellophane and all.
Ed smiled. "You're a hungry little fellow, aren't you?"
Busy crunching the cookies, his ego said nothing.
With Sharon's help Ed then eliminated the speck of guilt he harbored for burning down the ROTC building at UMass, his small guilt at having Father O'Reilly lie to his draft board to be classified a conscientious obiector With more difficulty, he eliminated the huge hidden guilt he held for shelving his convictions and switching from labor to corporate law, the large guilt over his fling with his secretary, his gigantic guilt for not getting arrested at the Pentagon in '67, his moderate-sized guilt at becoming a partner. By two in the morning, Ed had eliminated every strain of guilt he'd experienced and retained in his adult life. Except for one. And as the other participants, who'd already achieved their results for the day, dozed on their cushions, or sat watching him, weary-eyed and annoyed, his newest partner, Elliot, threw up his hands in exasperation. Tupai, who'd quietly sat in his chair watching them, stepped down from the platform.
Tupai glanced at Ed's nametag, then asked, "What's the problem, Ed?" Tupai tapped Elliot's shoulder, suggesting he take a break.
Ed sighed. "I don't know." He pulled his sweaty T-shirt from the small of his back. I can't seem to lick this one guilt." It was the gnome in his head. After more than a week of silence, the little bastard was tap dancing through his brain like there was no tomorrow. With rocket fire and radio transmissions now came the roar of jet fighters.
". . . Redhawk One, this is Hammer One . . ."
". . . Hammer One, this is Redhawk One . . ."
". . . Target: dug-in troops . . . Grid one five niner zero zero two three . . . Willy Pete . . . Two seven zero degrees . . . One five zero feet. . . Friendly troops one thousand yards to the south . . . 12.7 machine guns. Two minute mark . . . Mark-mark . . ."
". . . Mark-mark . . ."
". . . Lookin' good . . . Come right. . . Lookin' good . . . You're cleared in hot—let em rip!
Ed closed his eyes and tried to will them away, but the shrill explosions still came.
"It's this damn gnome in my head."
Tupai put his hand on Ed's shoulder, and massaged it. "What does the gnome want?"
The gnome stomped out a heavy two-step, and Ed winced.
"It's about the war," Ed said with difficulty, machine-gun fire resounding through his head.
Tupai sat on the cream carpet, and got into a half lotus. Ed offered him Elliot's cushion, but Tupai waved it away.
"Tell me about you and the war, Ed."
Between bursts of static and explosions in his head, Ed told Tupai he'd been active against the war in college and that, just now with Elliot, he'd discovered inside him lay a deep guilt for not doing more to stop it. That's what Elliot had helped him realize. The gnome was the physical manifestation of his guilt over the war.
"I hear you," Tupai said. "And what's happened to the war?"
"Well, it's over, of course." Ed smiled uneasily. "I know, it's stupid for me to still think about it."
"It's running your life, isn't it?" Tupai said. "It's running your life and preventing you from being satisfied It's keeping you from connecting with your ego, which knows what you need to be happy."
Ed agreed. He gazed down at his green friend in the display crate. Since the gnome had started again, his ego had not said a word.
"Why do you feel guilty?" Tupai asked.
Ed thought for a moment. The static-filled screams of napalmed villagers made it difficult to concentrate. If he could just reach into his brain and pull out the little bastard, with its jungle boots and radio pack, he'd be able to talk to his ego, which knew what he needed.
"I know this is stupid," Ed told Tupai, who listened patiently, brown eyes warm and steady. But I guess I could've been more active against the War."
Tupai nodded slowly, chewing over an idea.
"List all the things you could have done."
"Well, I could've organized more resistance."
Again Tupai nodded, his face showing no judgment.
"And Jesus, this sounds crazy. I mean, I'm a partner in a goddamn law firm. Ed's eyes were hot and he closed them. Then he opened his eyes. "We could've overthrown the government. The American government. We could've seized this government and united with the Vietnamese people.
Tupai's eyes widened, and Ed saw the hint of a smile in the corner of the SEE founder's mouth.
"I know that sounds strange coming from me," Ed said. "But I was quite radical in college."
Tupai nodded, and waited for Ed's next words. When none came, he asked, "And what's this got to do with Ed?"
"What's this got to do with me?"
"Yes." Tupai shifted from the half lotus. He pulled his knees to his chest, wrapped his arms around them. "What's this got to do with you and your loved ones? Are you married?"
"Yeah. And we've got a grown daughter and young son."
"All right. What does the War have to do with them? Here? Today?"
"Nothing," Ed said. "It's over."
A pleased look came over Tupai's face. "But not for you, huh, Ed? It's still going on? This event in the past?"
"In my head it is."
"And what's that doing to you? To your wife? To your children?"
"I see your point," Ed said. He wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. "It makes me unhappy. And that affects my wife and kids."
"So what are you going to do about the war? The war that's over, except in your mind? The war that's running your life, and affecting your family? That's keeping you from being fulfilled?"
Throughout the day, Tupai had stressed the principle of not doing anything, of not analyzing things, of just being. Ed realized this was the answer to Tupai's question. And the answer to his problem.
"Nothing," he said, and Tupai and those around them smiled. "I'm not doing anything about the war. I'm letting it go. It's over."
He smiled and hugged Tupai. The older man smiled and hugged him back. The other participants applauded, and yelled their congratulations.
But after a few moments, the gnome in Ed's head started tap dancing again, and raised the volume on the radio pack. The radio was now picking up Spanish, Eastern European, and Arabic voices between battle transmissions. The American voices sounded contemporary.
". . . G-Dawg Two Xray, this is Hero Two Xray Six One, over . . ."
". . . Six one, this is G-Dawg Two Xray . . ."
". . . I will adjust on the gun-target line . . . Troops in the open . . . Range four hundred meters . . . Fire
when ready . . ."
Hearing these current voices, Ed couldn't suppress a thought.
"But Tupai," he said, "the war—you and I know it's not over. It's just being fought in different places than before. People are still being killed and oppressed. It's the same damn war. And it's getting worse and worse."
Tupai exhaled slowly, then stretched his legs before him, cracking his toes. He leaned back on the cream carpet, propping himself with his elbows.
"And what's this got to do with Ed?" Tupai asked calmly, though Ed saw impatience in his eyes. What do these wars have to do with Ed?"
Ed thought about it. He was exhausted. The gnome was tap dancing loudly.
That thing in your head is making me unhappy!" his ego snapped, its squeaky voice waking a napping couple. "Those voices are coming from thousands of miles away. Forget about them. I don't want to hear them. I do not want to hear them!"
Lightheaded, Ed looked at Tupai. "I just feel guilty that my material niceties, and independence and freedom, are taken from the world's poor. And that the war's designed to keep them poor."
"Ed'" Tupai said, concerned, "leave that old guilt trip for the college kids." He took Ed's hand and patted it. "Enjoy what you've earned. The poor don't mind riding old bicycles, and on crowded buses. You let them work out their own karma."
The gnome in Ed's head peeked out through his ear. Ed felt the tiny, army-booted creature standing on his ear landing. In a flash of green, his ego squeezed a part of itself through the display crate's slats, and Ed felt on his ear a warm, wet suction, then nothing. Looking down at his crunching ego in the crate, Ed realized the ego had sucked in the gnome—radio pack, jungle boots, and all.
His ego burped loudly, and Ed felt himself drift to sleep, his mind clear, free of sounds. He heard not a shoe tap, nor a burst of static, just the slow, steady sound of his own breathing.
In the hotel room nearby, Ed lay on the bed with his clothes on, thinking about the day's session, and about his life. He'd talked things over with his ego, and they'd decided there'd be changes.
In the corner of the room, beneath the draped window, his ego slept, its breathing thicker than was healthy. Ed rose and went to it. The wooden slats of the display crate were pressing against the ego's green mass, which had tripled in size since morning. From his backpack, Ed removed his Swiss Army knife. He pried open the top slats of the crate, so his ego could breathe more easily.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"For now, I suppose," his ego complained. "But tomorrow get me a larger container. This one is way too small."
"Sure," Ed said, patting his ego's smooth, cool back.
"And something quite a bit softer, too—something with plush lining."
"Okay," Ed said. He gave his ego a last pat and walked to the bed. He lay on his side, folded the pillow under his head. He hesitated, then picked up the phone from the night table, and dialed home.
When Ellen answered, her sleepy voice startled him. She sounded like a stranger.
"Ed? That you?" She cleared her throat softly. "What time is it, hon?
Ed looked at his watch. "Ten after three."
"How was the thing?" she asked sleepily. "Where are you?"
"It was fantastic. Ell. Look, I'm at a hotel on Thirty-Eighth Street. I thought it was better for me to stay here tonight." He adjusted the pillow under his head. Beyond the draped window, a delivery truck rumbled up Madison Avenue.
"The Seminar was great," he repeated.
"That's good, hon."
He sat up and listened to her yawn.
"Look, Ell ... I've been thinking tonight. Some things need to change. I want more space. I feel limited."
"Limited?" she said.
"Yeah," Ed said. "It's not your fault. I've limited myself." He paused. "Ell, I'm going to take some time off. Discover what I'm about."
At the other end, she was silent. Then she said, in disbelief, "You mean, quit your iob?"
She was quiet for a long moment. "Well," she said somewhat sternly, "let's talk about it when you get home."
"Look, that's what I need," Ed said. "But I'm tired. Let me go to sleep now. It's been an exhausting day."
"Ed, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Just tired."
"You are coming home tomorrow, aren't you?"
"Well, call me when you're finished. I'll take the Bug down and pick you up."
"OK," he said. "Sleep well."
"You too," she said. "Love you."
"I love you too," Ed said.
The next day's session was held in Avery Fisher Hall. TADESNA rented the 2,700-seat auditorium for the Seminar's second day, when everyone's ego grew sizably.
Standing behind the cream-and-crimson, SEE-embossed lectern, Tupai leaned toward the mike, ready to lead them through ego expansion.
"Everyone close their eyes," Tupai instructed, his electrified voice booming through the large hall.
Ed sat in his gold velour seat, exhaled slowly, and took in his fellow participants, some spread out in the orchestra seats around him, others sitting up in the gold-crested tiers.
"You, the individual," the SEE founder said, "are the center of the world. You re the center of the world, and the universe is endless. Expand into it, expand your lovely self into the limitless universe. Let your ego blossom, and grow as large as it can."
Then Tupai led them through the drills.
The day's results were unprecedented. By five, everyone's ego had at least quadrupled in size. Participants who'd followed Tupai's instructions to a tee had increased by a hundred-fold the size of their egos. So splendid were the results that Tupai decided to throw their group a personal victory celebration, in Madison Square Garden--on him. Having seen by noon how large their egos were growing, Tupai had instructed his assistants to rent a larger hall for the celebration, and fortunately the Garden had been free.
Ed and a young dermatologist, Norman, spent their hour before the celebration renting a Ryder truck, and larger containers for their egos. When they'd loaded their egos in the truck, Ed called home.
He told Ellen what he and his ego had decided: She'd be on her own with the apartment, and with Eddie's expenses while he rented a place, while he searched for his fulfillment.
"Ell? You still there?" She'd not said anything in a while. But he heard her breathing at the other end.
"Well how long will that be?" she asked, trying to stifle her rage.
"I don't know."
"Ed, you're insane. How am I supposed to pay the rent and Eddie s tuition?"
"Look, don't guilt-trip me, Ell. I need my own space."
"What about Eddie?"
"I said don't guilt-trip me. I'll hang up."
"We'll have to take him out of Dalton."
"Whatever. It's your decision."
"My decision? Ed, what've they done to you?"
He told her he'd be late getting home, that no, he didn't know when that would be, and that he had to go Norman was honking—the celebration was starting at the Garden.
It was clear sailing south on Broadway, until they reached Fiftieth Street, where traffic thickened. Night had fallen, and the huge, brightly lit ads illuminated Times Square.
"Shit," Norman said nosing them ahead of a honking taxi. "This is all we need. We're already twenty minutes late."
As they neared Forty-Eighth Street, traffic slowed to a crawl, and it took forever to get to the cross street, where Norman turned east toward Sixth Avenue. Ed said they should take Fifth down to Thirty-Third, but Norman insisted on crossing Times Square.
"Goddamn it" Ed said, when they hit a snarl on Forty-Third Street, between Sixth and Seventh. I told you we should've taken Fifth." Ahead, a row of unmanned cars was double-parked, forcing traffic to squeeze by in one lane. And now something was happening in Times Square, and no one was moving.
Ed stepped out of the truck and stood on the doorsill. He spotted the reason for the delay.
In the intersection sat several hundred demonstrators. Circling them were a young man and woman carrying a banner, which read: STOP THE BOMBING NOW!
Norman hopped out. "Will you look at these assholes," he said, then reached into the truck and blew the horn.
Ed climbed on the hood.
Sitting in the street were professor types wearing khakis and sweaters, workers sporting union jackets, black kids with blonde buzz cuts, white kids in dreadlocks. There was a People's Marching Band, red-bandanaed revolutionaries, black-clad anarchists, Grannies for Peace. Ed saw veterans from past wars, nuns, ministers and rabbis—even a group of pom-pom shaking cheerleaders, and several baby-faced, active marines protesting in uniform.
Clenching his fists and cursing, Norman joined Ed on the hood. An Arab man and African woman stood outside their cabs, yelling their support. A black cabby angrily marched toward the demonstrators with a tire iron. There was no way out, Ed realized, eyeing the honking cars and taxis behind them. A new wave of screaming and whistling came from Times Square, and he turned.
A group of demonstrators ignited a business-suited effigy of the President. A few bystanders and most of the demonstrators cheered.
"I'll drive right over these assholes," Norman said, hopping off the hood. He reached through the window and leaned on the horn. "I swear to God I will. What if an ambulance needed to get by? These people oughta be locked up."
Ed checked his watch. It was a quarter to seven—forty-five minutes after Tupai's celebration was to start.
The cars in front drove onto the sidewalk, scattering the effigy-burners. Norman rushed into the truck, drove it onto the sidewalk behind the cars.
"Fucking idiots," he said as Ed climbed in. "Goddamn fucking young assholes. Where are the cops when you need them? Out having pizza somewhere."
Norman nudged them forward in the sidewalk's slow procession of vehicles. Ed watched a mock, bare-chested Uncle Sam and muscular, headbanded Rambo walk by—shouldering fake rocket launchers. Outside the artistically lit armed forces recruiting station, a group of demonstrators chanted, "Stop the bombing now! . . . Stop the bombing now!"
"Shit," Norman said, guiding the truck down the sidewalk and into Times Square. "It's assholes like these that cost us Nam. Now they want to give back Bakat."
Ed checked his watch. "We're fifty minutes late, Norman."
Norman edged them into the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Seventh Avenue. The police had arrived, in white and blue squad cars and emergency vans, and were chasing the demonstrators, some of whom turned and fought the cops with their signs. As Norman maneuvered their truck into the far right lane, a young woman in a leather jacket thrust a leaflet into Ed's hand.
"Join us outside the UN tomorrow," said the young woman.
"Yeah, right," Norman said, leaning past Ed and shooting her the finger.
On the corner of Forty-second Street, a dozen helmeted cops battled several women demonstrators. The resident bible-thumpers had abandoned their tables, and watched from across the street.
"Bust some heads, fellas," Norman yelled to the cops. "Then lock 'em all the fuck up."
Norman turned right and sped west along Forty-second Street. At Ninth Avenue, he hung a left. "I don't know what it is about youth," he said, accelerating through the yellow light. "Or is it just spring?" Ed shrugged, and let the leaflet drop to the floor. He had a sense he'd been involved in such things, but couldn't recall when or where.
The Garden was three blocks away, and as Ed helped Norman look for a parking space, he thought of his new life. He imagined the co-op he'd buy, Central Park West sounded nice, the morning sun rising above the trees. It would be expensive, but he was worth it. He thought of hang gliding off the cliffs of La Jolla, spearfishing in the Yucatan, learning to skydive—climbing Mt. Everest. The possibilities were endless. All he had to do was say yes to his lovely ego. And no to anything in his way.
They parked the truck behind the main post office, a block from the Garden. Quickly Norman changed into the cream and crimson T-shirt Tupai had given them, My Wants First on the front, There Is None But I on the back. Ed put his on over his sweater. They unloaded their new containers, and wheeled them on dollies toward Eighth Avenue.
As they headed toward the 33rd Street ramp, which led to the Garden floor, Ed spotted ahead of them the woman with the sapphire-studded poodle, now seventy-five feet long, and the man accompanied by the erect penis, which had grown to two hundred feet. But when Ed and Norman reached the ramp's entrance, they saw the guards had lowered the garage door. The guards told them to enter through Tower B on Eighth Avenue.
The guard in Tower B checked their seminar passes, and told Ed and Norman there was room only in the upper level. Ed followed Norman and his twelve-foot, gold-plated money clip through the doors. With much effort, Ed and Norman lugged their dollies and containers up the stairs, then loaded them on the escalator.
Outside the upper level's steel doors, the red-jacketed ticket taker examined Norman's pass. Ed told Norman to go in without him.
"I need to use the bathroom, Norm. I'll meet you inside."
"Don't take too long," Norman said, perspiring. "It looks like there's no room left. There's been a lot of growth since yesterday morning."
Ed parked the dolly with his ego and its new container outside the men's room. Entering, he bumped into the sheik, who was in such a hurry to return he hadn't dried his hands. Standing at the urinal, Ed listened to the assertive laughter and thumping rap music in the arena behind him. He felt content. Zipping, he thought of how wonderful life would be now, and reached over his shoulder and patted his back for acting on the Voice ad.
He was washing his hands when he heard the heavy steel doors close, and the volume of music and laughter drop.
He rushed out without drying his hands, and found the container with his ego on the dolly, but the doors were shut. The ticket taker was gone, and the corridor was empty. Taped to the doors, a hastily scribbled note said ALL FULL.
"You took too long!" his ego yelled.
Ed tried to pry open the knobless steel doors, but they were locked. He heard the woman with the chinchilla-capped ego laughing inside, and over the PA the voices of Tupai and Herb Taylor, and the black bodybuilder, who vowed that now, after the Seminar for Ego Enhancement, he would earn a million-dollar bonus at year's end. Ed pounded the doors but no one came. There were only the happy sounds of the other SEE graduates, their louder and more assertive voices booming above the throbbing rap. Ed wiped the sweat from his forehead, and wheeled his ego toward the next gate. There certainly had been a lot of growth since yesterday morning. He wondered if there was any room left, and cursed himself for not entering sooner.
"The doors are open!" his ego shouted.
Ed saw the man with the thirty-foot scarlet rose enter, followed by the man with the permanent frown, pulling his gigantic Stress of Life book on a dolly. But then the ticket taker slipped inside, and tugged the doors shut. Ed pulled his dolly wildly. The container with his ego slid off.
"Hey!" his ego cried.
Leaving dolly and container behind, Ed ran to the doors, and tried prying them open. But they were locked.
"Great—just great," his ego whined.
With all his might, Ed pounded the locked doors. He pounded again, and only stopped when he could no longer lift his arms. Inside, the music and booming voices merged into a soaring echo of ego-expanded joy.
He was crying now as he collapsed to his knees. He heard behind him another late arrival, and looked at the sign the ticket taker had taped to the door. The sign read, in large assertive letters: ARENA COMPLETELY FULL NO MORE SPACE.