If You Play and If You Die

Artemis Brewster owned a large retail store in New Jersey, the Bargain Toy Mart (Toys for Less!) And he loved science fiction as much as what he sold. But his was not the doting, immature love of the geeky fanboy, it was the mature, robust love of the connoisseur. In fact, he loved a little too much, often playing the role of mentor to his favorite authors: writing letters (judicious ones, he thought) to sometimes chide them “for letting themselves and their genre down.” Occasionally his missives went on a bit too long—and sometimes they were more than just a little bit negative.

For example, take his letter to Thomas Disch, whose early story, “Descending,” printed in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1964, he particularly treasured. On rereading it years later, he felt compelled to contact the author, pointing out a glaring defect in the otherwise powerful piece. In the story a penurious writer, who has been living on instant noodles, finally makes a big sale. After cashing the check, he goes to a large department store to buy a paperback novel as well as some snack food. He is so ravenous, both physically and intellectually, that he tears open a bag of pretzels and begins reading the newly purchased tome simultaneously as he rides down an escalator. Immersed in these two activities, he stays on the moving stairs even after everyone else has gotten off, eventually traveling deep into the store’s nether regions. And this is what Brewster took issue with.


Stunned, photograph by Chris Bava
Stunned, photograph by Chris Bava

“It’s implausible,” Brewster wrote Disch. “People have omni-active peripheral senses. No matter how engrossed you are in a particular pursuit, you’ll be immediately snapped back to reality if there is a radical shift in your surroundings, say, going from a peopled to unpeopled terrain. Given this internal alarm system, it is simply out of the question that a character would descend multiple stories into a basement without noting that fact. Don’t get me wrong,” Brewster ended. “I only make these complaints because your story has affected me so deeply—haunting me, even—that I want you to redo it to make it perfect.”

Disch didn’t reply to his letter—perhaps he never got it—and, as time went by, Brewster forgot he ever sent it.

That Fall, Artemis went to the annual Guangzhou Toy Fair in south China—he made this pilgrimage every year to order toys to restock his store. Anything he bought in the U.S. was usually overpriced, so the money he spent on air fare was always more than made up for by the profit he would make on the toys he was buying. Besides, he truly enjoyed being in China with his translator and partner, Mr. Chu.

After placing several large orders, Brewster decided to take a stroll through the streets surrounding the toy fair to relax. Unfortunately, Mr. Chu was sick, so he wasn’t by his side. Artemis walked down Beijing Lu absorbing the abrasive rhythms of the marketplace. A shopping area like this one, with its streets closed to traffic, had a lot more commotion than one found in the streets of, say, Philadelphia. The numerous small clothing shops had no proper storefronts, only pull-down shutters that left their entrances open to the air; they were clogged with customers fingering the fabrics and teenage girls standing on the bottoms of overturned buckets in front of each one clapping along with the music that issued from chest-high speakers as they chanted, “Hoy my. Hoy my.” (“Come, buy. Come, buy.”)

As Brewster elbowed his way through this cacaphony, he stayed in the arcade, avoiding the even more raucous closed street where shoppers converged on such cynosures as a giant Coke can that lay on its side serving as a soft drink stand. By doing this, he avoided the touts who approached foreigners with laminated sheets showing a variety of high-end watches they were trying to unload. After a few minutes, tired of the sensory overkill and the mid-afternoon heat, Brewster sought refuge in the imposing GrandBuy department store.

He checked out the toy floor and, feeling proud of himself for having navigated that labyrinth so well, got on the elevator to descend to a lower level. There were two buttons at the bottom of the panel:

1 門口

1 土庫

Just by chance, the whole car emptied on the upper 1. The crowded displays on that floor didn’t appeal to him, as there weren’t any toys in sight, so he proceeded alone down to the lower 1. The door opened to reveal a dark aisle filled with packing crates. He seemed to be in the basement.

Immediately on the elevator’s settling, its lights blinked out, including those on the control panel. He felt around, pressing all the buttons in the dark, but nothing worked. The door remained open. He felt all over the walls, getting more and more frustrated. It was then that he recalled the Disch story and his resultant letter.

Figuring he’d better find the stairs, Brewster hesitantly made his way down the aisle, bumping into the large cartons that were on all sides in the dim grayness. They were the kind that could hold hundreds of Barbie dolls apiece and they sat unevenly stacked on pallets, each box stamped with what looked to be identical Chinese characters—the world’s worst case of overstocking.

He continued straight ahead, hearing no other sound than his own footsteps in the vast space. Turning a corner, he glimpsed a lighted door in the distance. He picked up the pace and finally reached it, a door that opened onto a stairwell. But now there was a decision to be made. Next to this exit was another elevator, which had its door open, was lit up and seemingly awaited his pleasure.

He didn’t have to think long. Why walk? He got aboard his “escape vehicle” and faced another indecipherable array on the control panel. There were no English numbers at all. Again he moved impulsively, hitting the second button from the bottom, assuming this panel mirrored the one in the conveyance he had gotten off. The door closed smoothly and the elevator dropped down one level, opening on another vista of packing crates.

He was shaken, to say the least. It appeared this elevator only went down. As he was staring at the control panel bewildered, without having time to react, the door closed again and the car descended further.

When the door opened this time, there was not the same array of packing crates but a vast plain of automobiles: row upon row of compact cars, new ones from the look of it, though their bodies were dull in the bleak light. He blocked the door with his own body to keep it from closing and looked around to see if anyone had perhaps summoned the elevator. He yelled out in vain, getting only an echo in reply. He stared at the rows of cars receding into the dark distance; ominous in silence.

He stepped back in, jabbing the very top button that logically should have taken him back to the floor he’d left, where he could try the stairs this time. But he had a new problem. The door started to close, ran most of the way across, then retracted. Had his holding it open jammed something? Nothing he did would make it work; it stayed open, not budging at all.

In a panic, Brewster decided to take any stairway he could find, so he ran out into the sub-basement looking for one. Fear was starting to overwhelm him. This was not the way reality should be. Normally, there was nothing he loved more on his factory visits than walking through serried rows of Baby Boo dolls or Maximus Man action figures, feeling the vastness and power of manufacturing, but the endless rows of cars buried many stories underground were only threatening. He sped past the brooding headlights.

As he was crossing the vast cavern, he realized he was making a mistake. It would make more sense to hug the walls, making a circuit of the room till he found access to a stairwell. He backtracked, and then turned to his left, finally coming upon a locked door with ideogrammatic labeling, which, for all he knew, might have been a storage closet. He couldn’t open it. He passed a closed elevator, then stumbled onto a door labeled with the universal symbol of stairs.

But it was locked and he didn’t have anything with which to pry it open. A sudden inspiration hit him. He could hop in one of the parked cars and, if he could start it, drive over and crash into the door. Screw the damages. He tried opening several car doors, but they were sealed tight. Even their trunks and hoods were locked. Moreover, he could see through their windows that none of them had keys in the ignition.

This was getting him nowhere. He decided to walk the complete circuit before he got too fixated on this one exit door. There might be other options, but the chill in this dank basement was getting to him. What did he know of the car trade? Perhaps cars were stashed in such out—of—the—way facilities for months without being disturbed. And no one knew he had come down here. No one even knew he was in this store.

“Be systematic,” he told himself. That had always been his way, whether coping with a downturn in the business or family problems. He would make a complete tour of the premises and, if that didn’t yield an open exit point, slowly and untiringly check every one of the few hundred cars to see if any had been left open. Very likely someone had gotten careless and not locked one of them.

And if that didn’t work, he would get back into the elevator that brought him here and pound on the walls until someone above him heard it. One of these actions would have to yield fruit.

Even as he spun these options in his head, he quickened his pace, almost trotting to get his initial survey done. He was trying to stay focused, but his frantic haste was not rational, not guided. He forced himself to slow to a jog. Then a paralyzing, crazy thought shot through his head. “This is the revenge of Disch’s story.” And even though it was the kind of lunatic idea one only gets in a panic, it sent a chill sparking down his spine. That frightening idea didn’t last long. In the next minute, he saw a new elevator, a big one this time. The inside was brightly lit and it was open. In it sat an automobile.

He hurried over and scouted the situation. The sedan’s right front door was open and the keys were in the ignition. Okay. He breathed deeply, his mind working systematically, flipping through possibilities as if he were rifling through a Rolodex. No sense trying to ride this elevator. He’d just get in the sedan and, assuming it started, drive around the basement till he came to the stairway door, which he would crash into gently, freeing up his exit.

But he had another thought. What if he got in the car and the elevator door suddenly snapped closed? He removed his shoes and suit jacket and braced them at bottom edge of the elevator door so it couldn’t shut completely.

Then he had another thought. Usually there were panels in the ceiling that could be popped open. He climbed up on the car and examined the roof of the service elevator. It was unyielding.

He sat down on the hood to rest. Why did they leave the car in the elevator with keys in the ignition? Chinese workers, like the Americans he’d known, were loafers. When it was quitting time, whoever was handling this car had decided to find a place to park it tomorrow.

To escape, he simply had to hop in, start the engine, motor out and drive over to the door he needed to break down. But nothing was simple down here.

Brewster slid feet first down the hood of the car and firmed up a plan of action. To escape, he simply had to hop in, start the engine, motor out and drive over to the door he needed to break down. But nothing was simple down here. He got in the car and, offering up a little prayer, was about to turn the key when he paused again. What if the car door he’d just closed had jammed? He quickly tried the door—it opened. He twisted the key and the motor sprang to life. Then another problem arose. There were no markings on the gearshift. He’d seen this on some American models. The shift indications were displayed on the dashboard. However, look as he might, he couldn’t find any.

Trial and error, he thought, gingerly moving the shift one notch and tapping the accelerator lightly. The car lurched backward, banging the back wall of the elevator sharply. All at once, before he could pump down on the brake pedal, the wall buckled without breaking, the lights went off, the whole enclosure tilted back, and the elevator door started to close.

Trying desperately to remain calm, he switched off the ignition or, rather, tried to switch it off and snapped the key instead. He watched in horror as the elevator door went past where his shoes should have stopped it—shoes which had now slid from their place when the floor tilted—though it didn’t close completely, leaving a hairline crack. The door was barely held open by his jacket, which was slowly being forced into the cavity.

He was shaking but still thinking clearly, almost clinically. He just had to get out and force the door open.

In the crash, the car had shifted to the right wall, so he had to switch sides and exit on the left, but the door on that side wouldn’t open at all. He could still break the window, squeeze through and crawl over the roof—which he did. He was woozy from the exhaust fumes, but remained focused—his consciousness crystal clear, his actions sure and quick—as if he’d been transformed into one of the Maximus Man figures he liked to sell.

He staggered to the crack and drew a few pure breaths through the chink, while trying to shove back the door. It was immoveable.

New plan. He could reenter the car, shift a second notch down and drive into the door, ripping it right out. He mounted the hood, but after a minute’s exertions, he staggered back to suck more clean air from the door space. He realized he would surely pass out if he tried to get back in the driver’s seat.

Then he was hit by an inspiration. He went to the front of the car, found a latch and wrenched up the hood. He would yank off the fan belt and kill the engine.

But before he could do that, he slumped to the floor, almost overcome. Had to get back up. He tried to stand but stumbled sideways, careening off the elevator buttons, then sat down again. The whole structure began shivering and groaning. With a tremendous screech, the back wall rubbed against the shaft. He was going upwards jerkily, as if drawn by a demiurge or, as flashed through his mind, a Maximus Disch lifting him to toy heaven.

-Jim Feast