Bill Pulley was in college in 1964. He went to Vietnam and came back to a career in the government’s cultural exchange department. The Voice of America.
Call it propaganda if you like, but it was mostly music and an exchange of professors, a pore of cultural intercourse. A ghost of Franklin’s interchange.
Countries chose content matter that suited the times—women’s rights, architecture, und so weiter—that were then issued by radio. A window in the Iron Curtain, into the Middle East, into German, China, more more more.
I met Bill in car 10 on the Amtrak westbound to California, which has coach-cars stifling as a ride in a cardboard box. You spend about forty-five minutes testing the faculties of your easy-lean chair, introducing yourself by eyesight to your temporary neighbors, trying out each method of distraction you’ve brought, but then you crave a view, and so stumble to the appropriate car.
I sat alone at a booth with bubble-windows aside and overhead. Families took pictures, alternating between attention and introversion. A woman pointed the obvious to her sons. Beer and coffee and small personal pizzas on most tables.
I read Gene Wolfe, and wrote about boundaries.
Self-evident: the wider boundaries are kept, the further one can roam.
If I admit to no other human’s demands that I stay in one place, my only real limitation is the sky. But if it weren’t? I wrote.
If it weren’t, I’m sure there would be another boundary.
The train speared a tunnel, and amid the cupped howl, Bill slid onto the tuft-cushion across me, affirmed it okay with a gesture, and turned to the blind world, a dark hand on his chin.
A man moves behind a tableau of clouds. Night time.
He looks from a tuft of soft he’s shaped into a cumulus stool in the sky. It rains below onto the world of walking people.
The mountains re-appeared. Granby, Colorado. Ice floes melted in the hidden canyons there, a setting kin to an event’s Backstage. The bush, land, water, and towns were rendered with the toyish frailty of a miniature. I set aside my book while Bill and I stared out at it and talked.
He told me about Vietnam—how he’d been shacked with the wrong division, realized he was in a dire place, organized his own escape, and bridged race gaps in the companion armies, Vietnamese and American, by starting a school. We taught them and they taught us based on rank—knight to knight, squire to squire.
His life spooled out over the four hours, a joker’s marvel, like he were pilfering success with his good intentions. He had good relationships with all his sons. He seemed surprised.
Often he forced a finger into the socket of his rheumy eyes and rubbed out a tear that’d been building with each blink. Flicked begone! into the rest of the train and I marveled as each time Bill started a story, he began to disappear and be replaced. As a young boy, he was separated from his body and witnessed its scavenging.
‘One time,’ even says Bill, ‘I was dead.’
In the moments his attention wandered, I short-handed a few notes. My capture was incomplete, but—I took his name, and dedicated my fascination with him into a couple paragraphs.
Bill Pulley could fly.
There was a severance that he made with the people who could not fly, just as the robot has with those that can feel, just as the writer has with those who don’t.
Of course I found myself there.
Once flying, the artist attempts to match the earth’s speed, to float in the path of satellites, cloistered at insane speeds. He is cloaked invisible to the people below and unworn by wind of any type and this is what makes him queer to the other characters in the play, because he goes somewhere else for a little while, and can’t know, or at least explain, the carbon he holds on return, like a gas in his reasoning, dissipated in the clutch of proper connection.