Billy’s Ghost ~ Michael Pearce


Larry was the last one to meet Billy Nekkers, and he didn’t like him. Most of the other staff were charmed by the artist’s seething vitality, his brooding intellect, even his occasional dramatic antics. Larry had been out of town when Nekkers arrived, and had missed the lunchtime welcoming party thrown in his honor. Nekkers reportedly had spoken with boyish passion and some eloquence about how he used computer technology to mimic human behavior, and even had some novel ideas about how art could be used in science museums. Over the next few weeks, whenever Larry passed by the basement workshop, he’d see Nekkers—his faced obscured in a fountain of purple and crimson hair—toiling feverishly, mostly in the electronics room, but also in the welding area and on the smaller of the two milling machines.

Then, three weeks into Billy Nekkers’ residency, Jack Hauser, from the graphics department, came by Larry’s office raving about the prototype the artist had set up the previous evening. About a dozen of the museum staff had gathered in the workshop to watch Nekkers demonstrate the interactive hologram he was developing. “Imagine stepping into a room and meeting yourself there.” Jack’s bulging eyes and booming voice exuded enthusiasm and wonder, without a hint of his usual sarcasm. “The Dutch guy’s contraption coughs up another you, a spittin image. But it’s not mirroring you, it’s, like… being you.” Jack, who was well over six feet tall and obese and brimming with physical, theatrical energy, suddenly dropped to a semi-crouch and peered and gestured into empty space as if there were a kangaroo standing there. “It’s like your long lost twin is right smack in front of you, looking you in the eye. It doesn’t talk yet, but it moves its mouth, and Dutch Guy is working on the sound. It’s freakin eerie is what it is. Dutch Guy is on to something. We were all knocked out.” Larry figured it was time to go introduce himself to the new artist-in-residence.

Billy Nekkers sat at a workstation in the electronics room, turning a screw on a small metal box that was hooked up to a computer and watching a line graph on the monitor respond to his adjustments. He didn’t acknowledge Larry’s friendly hello, so Larry stood there, uncomfortable but unwilling to retreat, and surveyed a wall covered with shelves of arcane equipment and a mess of patch cords that hung from hooks like vines in a rain forest. When Billy finally looked up, it was with an annoyed, impatient expression. “I do not have any time just now. Too bad you weren’t around last night. I had time then to show the progress on my piece. But I can’t stop my work every half hour to talk to whoever comes to visit. I have so very much to get done in the next two months.”

“I understand,” Larry said, and meant it. But he found the artist unpleasant nonetheless, and his feelings were a little hurt.

* *

A couple days later, on his after-lunch walk around the lagoon that bordered the museum, Larry spotted Billy Nekkers sitting on a rock near the water. Billy faced out across the lagoon, but Larry recognized the compact, muscular body and the colorful hair, which brushed the shoulders of an orange soccer jersey. He walked over and stood in front of him. “Hey Billy, how’s it going?”

The artist, startled as if from a dream, looked up at Larry and flashed a quick, empty smile. “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”

Billy’s distant stare reminded Larry of the peremptory, dismissive glances he’d begun to notice in his encounters with younger women. “Larry. Larry Mack,” he said, wanting to add ‘Pudgy, balding, unthreatening, almost middle aged Larry Mack, at your service.’

Billy nodded slowly. “What is it exactly that you do here, Larry Mack?”

“I raise the money that y’all spend,” Larry said amiably.

“So you keep this place on its feet.”

“Well, I help bring in the bucks. You know, team effort.”

“I worked for NUMA, the science center in Amsterdam. Every time they handed me a check, they lectured me about how hard it was to get money for their arts program. This one guy, this fundraiser, he felt he was doing me a favor to pay me. He says ‘I keep this place on its feet so you artists can fuck around with your toys.’ Then I finished my project, a robot that swam like a fish along with the other real fish in their big aquarium. Well, their aquarium was sold out for months after that. It was my work that brought in their money.”

Larry tried to ignore Nekkers’ hostility. “That’s what I love about working here, Billy. Our funders want to help us out. The place kinda sells itself, because of all the fine work that people like you do.”

Billy stood up square in front of Larry, his fierce, almost belligerent gaze pushing against Larry’s face. “People come to a place like this for the ideas, the inspiration, the beauty in art and science that is contained here. They enjoy what we make—we who work down in the basement where real things are made. That’s why the people come, and that’s what makes the money come. Not the bureaucrats upstairs.”

“Well thanks for the lecture, Billy. For a minute I thought I might be gettin a big head, but I feel a little humbler now.”

Billy smiled. “I did not mean to lecture. I’m still mad at this guy in Netherlands who was so uncool about paying my stipend, which was not so very much money. I apologize for lecturing.”

Larry liked the sound of colloquialisms like “this guy” and “so uncool” spoken with a Dutch accent. “Well,” he said, “artists always seem to get a raw deal. We try to do a little better here. It’s an expensive town, so we keep that apartment you’re staying in just for the artists-in-residence and other special guests. But I’m the first to admit we don’t pay a whole lot. That’s how life is at non-profits.”

He left with a bad taste in his mouth, annoyed mostly at himself for being so conciliatory with a self-absorbed jerk.

* *

As it turned out, the honeymoon with the new artist-in-residence ran its course pretty quickly, at least for most of the staff who worked directly with him. He complained that the shop tools and computer drafting software were not up-to-date, that the label writers and graphic artists did mediocre work that dumbed down the meaning of the artworks scattered around the museum, that the layout of exhibits in the perception area, where his finished piece would be installed, was haphazard, with no thought given to synergetic groupings. He saved his harshest critiques for the exhibit developers, who spent most of their time prototyping demonstrations of physical or perceptual phenomena. His unsolicited assessments came with a consistent subtext: everybody should be an artist like Billy Nekkers. “There’s no imagination here,” he’d say. “You can’t just grab some piece of nature out there and make a pale copy of it in here. You must create a world with it, make choices that give your clever little demonstration its own life. Let us know your vision of nature.” After a while, nobody in the shop wanted to be around him. If he came near them and started to talk about their work, most would simply walk away.

Jack Hauser, always quick to ride a wave of social consensus, reported the shifting tides to Larry with relish. Jack’s work put him in more direct contact with the exhibit builders and technicians, and he usually had the latest gossip on grumblings and confrontations in the workshop. He burst into Larry’s office one Friday morning, laughing even before he spoke. “Listen to this one,” he said, doing a quick dance step that reminded Larry of Emcee Thor, the huge black wrestler who occasionally showed up on the sports channel wearing a bearskin and Viking helmet. “So Tuesday, Dutchboy is sitting at his workbench in the shop, punching away on his laptop. Dave Cummings walks by, and Dutchboy calls him over. Tells Cummings that his new exhibit on Foucault currents has no rhythm or poetry.” Larry winced—Dave Cummings, a gifted engineer and machinist, was also a gun-toting redneck with a very short fuse. “Cummings tells him to fuck off. Dutchboy says hey, I only want to help you make something good get better.” Jack paused and looked at Larry with open-mouthed wonder, slowly shaking his head. “Cummings steps right up to him, right up to his face, close, so Dutchboy is, like, sitting there staring at his bellybutton. Cummings turns around, pulls down his pants, and bends over. ‘Make something good get better?’ he says. ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ and he stands there, in that position, asshole to eyeball, until Dutchboy has to get up and walk away.”

* *

Halfway into his three-month residency, Billy was required to give a presentation to the museum staff on his work-in-progress. It was scheduled at lunchtime in the museum theater. The audience was a little smaller than usual—nearly all of the workshop staff boycotted the presentation. But other staff members—copy writers and editors, operations technicians, graphic artists, fundraisers, HR people, the director of admissions—did show up, and were chatting and eating their sandwiches when Larry walked in. He spotted Jack in the back row, near the door, and sat next to him.

Billy arrived late. He smiled in his boyish way, but he seemed distracted and out of sorts, perhaps a little tired. “You may have noticed that my project is not set up here. I am having software problems with it right now, and anyhow some of you have already seen the prototype. So I will talk about where I am with this artwork, and I will attempt to show how I plan to move forward with it. And I will speak about the vision of this project, because it is true with any real artist that as the artwork takes form, the artist enters into a relationship with it. And the artwork teaches the artist about what it should be, and even what art itself should be. And so the vision of the piece must evolve, as the artwork and the artist too must evolve, to accommodate each other and a world that is in flux moment by moment.

“As I have become more intimate with my piece, I am understanding that it is a meditation on what our limits are as creators. We didn’t create this world, and yet we go around making and destroying as if we own the earth and the moon and the sun. I am asking the question, When do we step over the boundary between what is ours to play with and change, and what is—I will say an old-fashioned word—sacred.”

People began stirring in their seats. They had come to see a kinetic work-in-progress, not to listen to philosophical ruminations. Billy, picking up on the impatience of his audience, became agitated. “These are things that need to be acknowledged, to understand the decisions I am making about this piece. But you are Americans, you want to see results, yes? Well, as I said, I cannot show you the physical piece. But I will show you a video that I made the other night, when my very temperamental device was working okay.”

He fiddled with a laptop computer at the podium, and a video appeared on the screen hanging against the wall behind him. Billy sat down in the front row to watch. It looked like the video had been shot with a cheap camera that had been placed on a ladder in the workshop: the only visible images appeared in the lower left quadrant of the screen; the rest was grainy blackness. Most of the lights in the shop were out, and there didn’t seem to be anyone around but Billy, who stood with his back to the camera just inside the pagoda-like structure he’d set up near his workspace. The artist appeared as a silhouette, framed by the spectral light of the kinetic hologram that was the crux of the artwork.

Though the video was poorly shot, Larry could see the holographic image well enough to find it weird and compelling. The hologram itself was a 3-D photographic image of Billy, but it moved and behaved in a way that seemed independent of what Billy was doing. Yet it responded to Billy’s motions and actions, and even to a few key words he was speaking. Billy—that is, the video image of Billy’s silhouette—was laughing at the holographic Billy and mocking him. Hologram Billy began to cry, and fell to his knees. The more Billy-in-the-video mocked the hologram, the more Hologram Billy groveled and beseeched Video Billy to stop. Suddenly Video Billy spoke very quietly, apologizing to the hologram. He went down on one knee, as if he were proposing marriage, and spoke gently, with a songlike quaver in his voice, saying, “I will be your servant, humble as a child.” The hologram stood up, slowly. It seemed taller now, and was breathing strangely, as though its lungs were unusually large—Larry wondered if there was some sort of bug in the technology distorting the 3D image. Hologram Billy’s face contorted with an angry expression that also seemed exaggerated, and he began speaking loudly, uttering phrases that Larry recognized from the Old Testament. Video Billy—the silhouette—then turned around and walked toward the camera, and a giant hand reached up and covered the lens as the video ended.

There was a heterogeneous stir and mumble in the audience. A few people stood and left, either because they’d had enough, or they had to get back to their desks. A small tribe of younger folks—four or five of them—who always sat together in the back row at staff meetings and lunch presentations like this one, were chattering excitedly, obviously impressed by what they saw. Most of the older staff looked a bit annoyed and exasperated. Larry had worked at the museum for twelve years and knew them well—pragmatic types who liked that the museum was a motley collection of gizmos that visitors could use to explore the natural world. For the most part they had little tolerance for expressionistic, emotionally charged artworks.

Billy looked around at the sparse audience. “As you can see, what started as a fanciful experiment in programming and animating a dynamic holographic image in real time has evolved into an investigation of the symbiosis of man and machine, master and slave, maker and image, even of God and man. This is my current struggle, and my evolving vision.

“And now is the time that I am supposed to ask for questions and comments. But I can see what you are thinking and I do not wish to expose myself to doubt or derision. So I will thank you for coming and ask for your patience in the continued evolution of this piece.”

As they left the theater, Jack rolled his eyes at Larry. Doing a surprisingly accurate impression of Nekkers’ Dutch accent and high, musical voice, he rambled on as they walked upstairs to the offices. “And now is the time I will present to you a little melodrama involving me and my neurotic alter ego. As you can see, I have left some of my marbles in Amsterdam, an ancient city of social tolerance and medium-priced hookers. Have I mentioned that I am blessed with enormous talent? You might even say very enormous. And that’s before I get an erection.” Seeing that Larry was not really listening, Jack switched to his fallback Borsht Belt comedian voice. “It’s not like you haven’t been a beautiful audience, but I gotta get back to the graphics department, where people actually smile now and then.” He abruptly spun around and trotted down the hall.

Alone in his office, Larry was gripped by an aching dread that seemed to have no object, though it triggered a memory of an incident in his early childhood when his father had momentarily disappeared in the clamorous throng of men leaving a football game and he thought he’d been abandoned. It occurred to him that he hadn’t called his parents in several months. He picked up the phone, then put it back down, feeling an almost overwhelming urge to cry. He had found Nekkers’ presentation both exhilarating and troubling. The ghostlike image, with its tour-de-force 3-D movement and high drama, was at once dazzling, silly, repulsive, and strangely moving. He recognized in Billy a familiar spiritual yearning, and a sadness that touched him.

Ever since he had walked away from the Landmark Baptist church as a young man, Larry carried with him a dim but nagging sense of loneliness. For many years, any awareness of all that he’d given up in rejecting the church and its community had been drowned out in the din of his seething, almost relentless hatred of the lies and injuries inflicted by zealous believers. But much of this bad feeling had over time decayed to nostalgia, and the anger that he had once directed at the church and the blind, foolish faith of its parishioners had undergone a slow, alchemical shift, had in fact turned toward himself and his own folly: how absurd and pathetic he was, to have an intellect that discerned the glaring lapses in reason among the faithful, yet left him alienated and a little lost in the process. It occurred to him that the one consistent thread in his adult life was this sense of banishment from the comfort and belonging of his childhood. In college, he’d loved science and math classes because they gave him the tools to understand, without superstitious hand-waving, how the natural world works. But the only real solace and joy he found in the face of his spiritual alienation was in the songs of Lucinda Williams, Merle Haggard, Iris Dement, Van Morrison—people who themselves struggled with the same loss and sadness.

He continued to stare at the telephone as though it might at any moment connect him to his remembered childhood, to a voice that would conjure the warmth and safety of that lost time and place. But he knew from experience that the only way to weather this old malaise was to submerge himself in his work.

* *

Over the next couple weeks Larry noticed a sea change in his colleagues’ attitude toward Billy Nekkers. What had been a spiteful, personal anger at Billy’s insolence on the part of those who worked directly with him, had spread and devolved to a broadly held view that he was not only a pain in the ass, but a marginally competent, inconsequential artist, possibly even a charlatan. Such groupthink and facile consensus, common to every workplace he’d been in, had always seemed to Larry a half-step away from the herd mentality and bigotry he’d rejected in the church community of his childhood. He found himself avoiding small, gossiping groups of colleagues. He avoided Jack Hauser.

“Excuse me, Larry Mack.” Larry looked up from the spreadsheet on his monitor to see Billy’s squat, muscular figure in the doorway. Wearing a pale green silk shirt buttoned from the mid-chest down, tight black jeans that ended above the ankles, and odd, gold corduroy shoes with no socks, he looked more European, and more self-consciously artsy, than before. “I would like to talk with you.”

“Sure, come on in, Billy.”

Stepping forward, the artist looked around the office with a friendly smile. “Is Larry your given name, or is it short for a longer name?”

“My folks named me Lorenzo, but nobody’s ever had the nerve to call me that.”

“My folks named me Bezelinus. Can you imagine?”

“You would’ve had a tough go of it in the Texas school system.”

“You are from Texas?”

“Fort Worth.”

“I’ve been invited to do a project at the science center there.”

“Good folks. My cousin works there.”

Billy looked thoughtful. “I have a problem, Larry. Maybe you can help me.”

“I’m happy to try.”

“My sister and her family have come to stay with me. But I am living in the small studio that the museum provides me—I’m sure you have seen it. I need to find a place while she is here.”

“There’s a Travelodge over on Lombard Street. It’s pretty decent. She’ll be near the museum, and can walk over here or to your place.”

“You don’t understand, she will continue to stay in my place. She has two daughters and no husband and makes very little money. So I need to stay somewhere to make room for her and the girls. As you yourself have said, we artists aren’t paid much, and it’s so expensive in this town.”

“Billy, we don’t have the resources to give you two places to live.”

“Perhaps I could stay with you.” He said it casually, but Larry saw in his face the same childish look—part defiance, part fear—that he’d seen when Billy had entered the theater for his presentation two weeks earlier.

“Billy, I can’t really do that. I just can’t.”

“But you have a guest room. Or so I have been told.”

“You’re certainly well-informed, only I wouldn’t wish that room on anybody. It’s nothing but a big pile of stored junk. My ex-wife predicted it’d only get worse after she left, even though her own stuff took up half the room. She knew me pretty well.” The instant he mentioned his ex-wife, an old sense of resignation crept into his body, and he knew he would cave in to Billy’s request.

“I had to ask you,” Billy said. “I have no other place to go. I’m sorry it won’t work.” He made no move to leave.

Larry breathed out a frustrated sigh, but smiled. “Okay Billy, we’re two days away from the opening. You can stay for a few nights. But I live alone and I like it that way. Your sister is in town just briefly, for the party?”

Billy beamed. “Yes, only that. They will be leaving shortly after. And I will move back.” He gave Larry a slap on the shoulder. “And I will be gone a week after the opening anyway. No more Nekkers, the crazy temperamental artist.”

* *

Billy showed up that evening with a stuffed backpack and a canvas briefcase that held his laptop. He was unusually subdued and courteous, yet seemed agitated and remote, responding briefly and vaguely to Larry’s attempts to engage him in conversation. Larry showed him the guest room, in which he had cleared some space and opened up the sofabed. Billy thanked him and told him he’d be leaving for the museum early, so Larry gave him the key to the apartment and left him alone. When he woke up the next morning, Billy was gone.

He arrived at the museum around nine, and stopped by the workshop. It was clear that everybody in the shop had shifted into high gear to meet the approaching deadline of Billy’s opening. Dave Cummings, who had been Billy’s arch-enemy during the past weeks, was cheerfully welding together the final structure for Billy’s piece, an open, gazebo-like thing the size of a small room. Two young technicians with electronic and computer programming skills were working with Billy on the projection device, the computer, and the interface controls that would be mounted in the booth. Most of the other exhibit builders and technicians were either out on the museum floor checking exhibits, or doing repairs to get everything running properly for the opening. There was a palpable shift in mood since the last time Larry had been in the shop—everybody seemed energized and amiable, and the camaraderie clearly included Billy, who had, at least temporarily, been accepted back into the fold. Larry, feeling like an outsider from upstairs and not wanting to interrupt the flow of things, slipped back out without saying hi to Billy.

He spent the morning calling funders, board members, faculty from local university art departments, and some civic and community leaders to confirm that they would be at the opening. It would be one of only two major art events at the museum that year, and it was his charge to make sure that people with money and influence showed up.

A little before noon Jack Hauser stopped by to see if Larry wanted to step out to lunch. Larry declined—he’d be eating later with Mark Parnell, the museum director, and David Lazlo of Lazlo Systems. Jack raised his eyebrows—restless little squirrels that he often put to use for comic effect. “Mr. Bigshot doesn’t have time for the little people anymore? After all I’ve done for you. Okay, so I haven’t done squat for you. I deserve this rejection, I really do.” He turned to leave, but suddenly stopped. “Hey, I guess Dutchboy must be camping in the park now.”

“What do you mean?”

“You didn’t hear? He got himself booted out of the apartment. First he was running up these huge phone bills. Then he started a fire in the kitchen. I guess that all sounded kind of innocent, so nobody bugged him about it. Next thing the lady next door complains that he spoke obscenely to her. I don’t know if that means he was hitting on her, Amsterdam style, or if he was just his normal obnoxious belligerent self around her. Then the other night he starts pounding on her door when she’s sleeping, so she calls the cops. Parnell told him he had to get out of there—we pay the rent on the place and we’re liable. I don’t know where he’s staying now.”

Larry stared at Jack a moment too long. “I do,” he said. He smiled, then giggled. But what was supposed to be an ironic chuckle revved up into an almost uncontrollable laugh. He put his hand over his face.

Jack smiled too, but uncomfortably. “You gotta be kidding.” He gave Larry’s face a searching look. “He’s at your place? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I’m not kidding.”

“Mr. Fuckin Nice Guy. You keep any jewelry there? I hope you got insurance for that big ol’ TV you just bought.”

* *

That night Larry was just floating into the cottony womb of a deep sleep when the front door to his apartment slammed open. He stumbled into the hall as Billy walked past him, his computer bag slung over his shoulder, a half-full magnum of wine in his hand. He was singing loudly and badly, in Dutch.

“You okay, Billy?”

The artist, looking exhausted and depressed and older than his years, leaned against the kitchen doorjamb. “What a stupid lousy name: Billy. The name of a bicyclist or soccer player. I took it to escape the curse of Bezelinus. I hate the name Bezelinus! I hate the dutiful little boy who bore it like an annoying rash. I hate all names. They call attention to themselves and away from the reality they signify, a reality that cannot be spoken. The first ape who named a name began a holocaust against God’s creation, and the biologists and philosophers and poets continue to carry it out like storm troopers. Are you a religious man, Larry?”

“No, I’m not.”

“I was raised as a boy to believe in nothing that I could not see. But what is seeing? It is merely a process of indiscriminate sensory bombardment if there is no meaning, no purpose, no soul under the surface we perceive. That is what we call beauty, it is what we call the spiritual, it is what some people call God.”

“I admire people who can find that beauty, and who can find some meaning and solace there.”

Billy looked at Larry as if he’d just taken off a mask. “So you do have a relationship with God?”

“Not anymore. But sometimes I wish I did.”

“You are not a simple man, Larry Mack.”

“I reckon that’s about as close as you’ll ever get to a compliment, so I’ll try to savor it. It’s past one o’clock, Billy.”

“Yes. I have been working late.”

“And we both have to show up for a long day tomorrow and make your opening a smashing success.”

Billy, his back still against the door post, slid down to a crouch. “I know what I like about your museum, and what I don’t like. I like that you reveal the little wonders of nature, for anyone to come and discover. What you don’t do is to reveal what is hidden in the creation, the holiness and purpose that lives in every spider, every drop of water or patch of rust. And I know what my job is as an artist. It is to show the glory of God’s work, the breath and blood of the creator that lurks in all things.”

Larry patted Billy’s shoulder. “Get some sleep.”

Billy continued as if Larry hadn’t spoken. “That’s what I do. I know you must think I am full of pride because I speak for God, I celebrate his work. But it is not so unusual. It’s my job, and many people share the same job. Artists and the like. Musicians. We show the glory of creation. We work very hard, sometimes for no money. I used to be a theater artist, performing on a stage. Then I realized that I could make something real, that gets people to do real things. I don’t know why it makes me so sad to talk about this, it’s a magnificent thing. I think I must be very tired.”

Larry, himself exhausted, went back to bed, leaving Billy sitting there in the kitchen doorway.

* *

Larry arrived at the opening with Mark Parnell, the museum’s executive director, and Laney Dressler and Phil Sheridan, both senior members of the board. The first hour of the event, from five to six, had been billed as a “special preview,” and only board members and high-end donors were invited. The staff was still setting up a small p.a. system near the buffet tables and doing some tinkering on exhibits, but this was part of the charm and tradition of these pre-event gatherings: the elect invitees enjoyed being on the inside for these last-minute tweaks. The other invited guests—members of the museum, artists, teachers, friends of the staff, had invitations for six o’clock.

Mark, spotting other board members at the buffet table, asked Larry to show Billy’s piece to Laney and Phil. Billy was not around. Jack Hauser, standing on a short A-frame ladder, was attaching the title sign—‘Spirit Booth’—over the entry arch. “Why Mr. Larry Mack, patron of the arts, friend of the homeless, what a pleasure.” He stepped down from the ladder, then gestured toward the artwork. “It’s ready to go. Somebody’s gotta take the first spin of the evening.” He flashed Laney a leering smile. “Somebody better looking than me or Larry.” He picked up the ladder and walked off.

Laney looked at Larry and Phil, shrugged, and stepped into the archway that was the threshold of the piece. Immediately a bright light from the back wall of the exhibit came on, so that Larry and Phil, standing behind her, could see only her silhouette. A recorded voice—both haughty and gentle, in an Orwellian sort of way—commanded her to face a small monitor, also on the back wall of the booth, and imitate the body movements of an animated figure there. The figure ran in place, jumped, crouched, twirled, nodded, shrugged, gestured, and so on. Laney, obviously something of a gym rat, enjoyed being put through the callisthenic paces.

The voice next told Laney to introduce herself—which she did—then commanded her to repeat everything it said. It uttered sounds, then words, then complete sentences, some very matter-of-factly, some with great emotion. Laney seemed a bit embarrassed doing the emotional voices, but was a good sport about it. Finally, the voice, sounding a little friendlier, asked Laney to express, with her face and body, each of six emotions—fear, joy, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise. The voice thanked her and invited her to step all the way into the Spirit Booth. Then, in very formal tones, it introduced her to OverLaney, her counterpart from the spirit world. The light on the back wall went out, and others came on, so that she was now gently illuminated on all sides like an actor on a stage.

Laney stood there looking a little confused. Suddenly it appeared: a ghost of herself, facing her with a worried yet curious look. She gasped and stepped back, then began laughing. The hologram wore the same loose sweater, short skirt, and heels that she was wearing, but the colors were radically different—glowing reds and purples and greens where she wore muted and matched earth tones. When it spoke, it was in a voice that was very close to Laney’s, but was slower and ranged more in frequency, which made it sound emotionally unstable. “Hi, I’m OverLaney,” it said.

Laney smiled and stepped toward OverLaney; OverLaney stepped back, cowering in a slight crouch, and begged Laney not to get too close. Laney stepped back again, saying without any apparent thought or irony, “Oh, sorry.”

A few people who’d been standing at the buffet table or wandering nearby gathered around the Spirit Booth.

OverLaney stood up and spoke in the same, oddly emotional voice: “I like having you here, but it upsets me if you get too close.” Laney stood there, looking a little confused, then asked OverLaney where she had come from. OverLaney appeared to be in deep thought, then smiled and said, “I evolved. I’m not an animal.” She laughed, then suddenly looked very sad.

Laney took a step to the left, then quickly moved two steps to the right. “Are you okay?” she asked.

OverLaney, clearly tracking Laney’s body and face movements, looked her in the eye. “I’m sad,” she said. When Laney didn’t respond, she continued. “I’m sad because you can’t dance.”

“I can dance,” Laney said. She began doing comic, exaggerated dance moves, as if she could hear a soundtrack of pounding Euro-trance music.

OverLaney started imitating her, moving in Laney’s frenetic style but slowly progressing to postures and moves that bordered on the physically impossible, jumping too high and stretching out at odd angles. Finally, OverLaney shouted out “Stop!”, and fell to her knees, crying.

Laney knelt too, and started to ask OverLaney what was wrong, but OverLaney interrupted. “That is not communication, that kind of dancing. You are not from the spirit world, and you don’t aspire to the spirit world. I can never be a body, but if you really try, you can be a spirit.”

“I will try, I promise,” Laney said. She turned to Larry and Phil. “Wow, that’s quite something,” she said. She stood and stepped out of the booth, moving awkwardly, as though she’d left her body for a while and hadn’t quite settled back inside it. OverLaney disintegrated, and the small audience applauded. Another woman, the wife of a local software entrepreneur, handed her wine glass to her husband and stepped into the booth.

At six the second wave of guests began showing up, and a half-hour later there were a couple hundred people at the party. Compared to when the museum was open to the public, this group of guests and staff looked sparse on the museum floor. There were fewer than a dozen children, which gave the place a more formal ambience, very unlike the festive, chaotic buzz of a weekend afternoon. The guests milled around mostly among the perception exhibits at the back of the museum, where the three long buffet tables, covered with catered hors-d’oeuvres, wine, and sparkling water, had been set up near Billy’s Spirit Booth.

Larry, who loved the mix of people who showed up for the openings—museum staff and board members, large and small donors, artists, students, businessmen on their way home from work, science teachers, and museum members from all walks of life—lost himself for a while in the spirit of the party, chatting with guests and other staff members. Now and then it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen Billy, but he had no particular responsibility for the artist, and in fact was tired of worrying about him.

People were lined up at Billy’s Spirit Booth. Larry, watching from a distance, could appreciate the design of the piece, which Billy had done in consultation with the staff engineers and designers. It was set up so that it was easy to view the action in the booth from the front and sides—the archway and its supporting structure were built from thin steel square tube, with lights and projectors attached just under the roof, about twelve feet up; the two sides had waist-high fences of clear acrylic. Only the back wall of steel tube and plywood, with its lights and cameras and projectors and computer cabinet and the large sheets of photochromic glass that made up the “screen” for the animated 3-D image, broke the sightlines to the booth. This allowed for a kind of conviviality at the exhibit: visitors not waiting in line gathered around to watch and even participate in the drama going on inside the booth, responding to and egging on the person inside.

* *

At seven, Mark Parnell grabbed a wireless microphone, jumped up on a stool, and welcomed the guests to the opening of the museum’s latest interactive artwork, created by the internationally recognized artist Billy Nekkers. Mark, whose droopy, elastic face could leap into action in response to the slightest of emotions, beamed with enthusiasm and expectation as he thanked the funders and all the staff who had worked hard to make this event happen. He then announced that Billy would be performing in his own piece, the Spirit Booth, in fifteen minutes. Hopping back down from the stool, he walked over to Larry in quick short steps and asked him where Billy was. Larry said he hadn’t seen him. Mark’s mobile face reorganized instantly into a menacing glare. “Well he’s scheduled to show up and dazzle us at quarter-past. I heard he lives with you. Make sure he’s here.”

Larry asked some of the shop technicians where Billy was, but nobody knew. He decided to do a quick sweep of the places where he might find Billy, beginning with the workshop downstairs. Billy was not in the shop, or the Graphics office, or the men’s room, or the staff lounge near the offices. On his way out, he stopped by his own office to check the phone for messages.

Billy was standing in the center of the room, struggling into a tight body suit made from gray spandex. A short woman in baggy brown pants, a tan shirt, and high-heeled sandals helped him pull the outfit evenly over his shoulders, then zipped up the back.

When Billy saw Larry he ran to the door and embraced him, and began speaking in a high-pitched, manic voice, as though he had only to open his mouth and the words would fly out of their own volition. “Hello Larry, so good to see you, I hope you don’t mind we’re using your office as our dressing room. This is my sister Anja, she just arrived from Holland today, she made this outfit for me, isn’t it cool, Larry?”

Larry stared a moment at Billy’s wide-eyed, frenetic face, then turned to his sister. “Anja. What a lovely name, and it’s a pleasure to meet you. Are your daughters with you?”

Anja, confused, perhaps not understanding Larry’s words, looked to Billy for help. “Her English is very limited. The girls are with our mother in Holland. She is here alone. I am almost ready for my performance.”

“I arrive today. I am happy to meet you,” Anja said.

Larry, relieved that Billy would indeed be performing as Mark had announced, told him that he’d like to accompany him onto the floor and, after his performance, introduce him to some of the guests.

“That’s great, Larry,” Billy said. “You can help us.” As Anja smoothed out some wrinkles in the body suit, he pulled an ornate crown of gold plastic from a white shopping bag on the desk and handed it to Larry. He then lifted from the chair seat a tall gold scepter, with lines of silver relief snaking its full length in spirals and capped with a purple globe, and placed it in Larry’s other hand. Feeling the substantial weight of the thing, Larry remembered seeing Dave Cummings fabricating it from a steel pipe in the shop a couple days ago, working from an elegant sketch that Billy had done in colored pencil. Anja grabbed the shopping bag and they headed out onto the museum floor.

Most of the guests were by now gathered around the Spirit Booth. Larry and Anja escorted Billy to the archway at the front of the piece. A tall, gray-haired woman whom Larry recognized as a professor at the local art institute had just stepped into the archway, but Billy politely asked her to leave. He then walked across to the back wall, ignoring the voice instructions on the sound system. He unlocked a panel below the little monitor, and swung it down on a bottom hinge to a horizontal position, revealing a keyboard attached to its inside surface. Billy flipped a switch, also on the inside of the panel, and the monitor filled with computer code. He typed in some instructions, then flipped the switch again and closed the panel, leaving it unlocked. He went back and stood just in front of the booth, looking childlike, even fragile, in the gray body suit.

Anja walked up to him and took a white satin choir robe out of the shopping bag. Billy pulled it over his head, and Anja fastened it in the back. It extended down below his knees and lent some bulk and substantiality to his presence. She then took from the bag a long white beard and helped him affix it to his face—it appeared to be held in place with some adhesive as well as a string that she tied back around his neck. He whispered something to Anja. She looked around, spotted the wireless microphone that Mark Parnell had used earlier, and retrieved it for Billy.

Billy now looked expectantly at Larry. For a moment Larry just stared back at him, but then he realized he had a role to play. “Oh,” he said walking forward with the props in his hands. There was some quiet, friendly laughter in the crowd. Billy spoke in an urgent whisper. “First put the crown on my head. Good. Now hold out the scepter. Thank you Larry.” Larry stepped back into the crowd, next to Anja.

Billy stepped into the archway, but the voice did not come onto the sound system. Instead, Billy, holding up the wireless microphone and speaking with the booming voice of a Shakespearian actor, called out. “Billy Nekkers!” The name could be heard coming from both Billy and the nearby p.a. system.

A smaller voice, sounding like Billy’s normal voice, came from the much more modest sound system of the booth. “Yes?” it said with a fearful quaver.

“Why do you hide from me? Come forward!” Billy-as-God commanded.

The vaporous hologram figure of Billy appeared in the booth. He stood naked, except for a large, fake-looking fig leaf over his groin, and looked sheepishly at God’s feet. “I was afraid,” Hologram Billy said.

“You should be afraid, Billy Nekkers,” God said.

“And indeed I am.”

An almost uniform sigh of relaxed laughter came from the crowd, and Larry turned to Anja. “So your brother’s a comedian. Who would’ve guessed.”

Anja smiled back. “He is not my brother.”

God spoke even louder. “I am your Lord, and you are nothing but a man. A man who tries too hard sometimes. Don’t forget that I made you, and I can remake you!” He held the scepter up vertically, then stabbed it straight downward, so that it struck the floor with a loud, satisfying thump.

Hologram Billy immediately began to contort in shape, his body becoming darker and more muscular and extremely hairy, until all but his head looked like a chimpanzee. The audience burst into a clamor of oohs and ahs, with a smattering of excited applause. Billy the chimp began to laugh, then stood up straight and pounded his chest. “Yes, you made me,” he said. “And you have just remade me. And now everyone can see that you make mistakes!” He launched into a ridiculous dance that Larry thought he recognized from an old music video—nodding his head to an imagined gangsta beat and moving his pelvis suggestively.

“You mock and defy your Creator, Billy Nekkers?” Hologram Billy continued to dance. “And now you ignore me?” God’s voice became parental and scolding. “Young man, I am talking to you!”

The audience hummed with amusement, with Jack Hauser’s voice standing out, laughing a little louder than everybody else. But Larry was finding it difficult to participate in the jovial, irreverent spirit that had spread through the room. He was in fact slipping away, feeling alienated from those around him, as he had during Billy’s presentation in the theater. The crude parody of the Book of Genesis had gotten under his skin, in part because the words of the Bible still held a faint but stubborn power over him. Maybe it wasn’t rational, but a nagging little voice in his head told him that the Scripture shouldn’t be messed with any more than a grave should be desecrated, no matter one’s notions of the supernatural.

But what disturbed him more was Billy’s demeanor, which seemed to be shifting oddly from moment to moment, sometimes without apparent control. At certain points Billy seemed to be hamming up a dramatic role; but then he’d suddenly slip into a confused despondence, or rev up to a manic, nearly hysterical state. Larry looked at Anja for any sign of the same worry that he felt. But she stood there, serene and inscrutable, watching Billy with calm, almost deadpan interest.

God again raised the weighty scepter and thumped it down on the floor twice. Hologram Billy began to change shape again, stretching and winding into a spectacular swirl of tropical hues, until he fully morphed into a huge, brilliantly colored snake that still retained Billy’s head. The audience again applauded and chattered happily as the serpent began slithering and coiling on the floor of the booth.

Billy-as-God was speaking again, and there was real anger in his voice. “God does not make mistakes. He gives you life and spirit, and you make mistakes!”

The serpent wiggled in close to God, then extended itself vertically until it could look Him directly in the eye. “All you make are the trees and the bushes, and the creatures that put the trees and bushes in their mouths and shit them out their assholes. You give us a brain to think with. But we make it into a spirit, and we do it in the very act of spitting in your face and telling you we have surpassed you with the dreams and music that are born of our spirit. I laugh at you! I mock you! I spit in your face!” The hologram spat, and Larry could see the saliva fly through the air toward God’s face. He fully expected to see spit on the actual face of Billy-as-God, and was momentarily surprised when he saw that there was nothing there.

God moved around restlessly, pointing his finger at serpent-Billy and speaking with increasing anger, his voice slipping more and more from deep, resonant theatricality to squealing hysteria. “Pride and blasphemy, that’s all you can offer me, after all that I have given to you? I made you and I can unmake you!” He stormed over to the control panel, pulled it open, and flipped a switch. The Billy-headed serpent vanished and the area inside the Spirit Booth went dark.

The silence that followed was singularly undramatic. Billy stood in the semi-darkness staring at the panel, his shoulders slumped in a way that could be interpreted as abject or just relaxed. There was a thin but prolonged ripple of applause, and even some enthusiastic whoops, and then the guests began chattering among themselves. Mark Parnell stepped into the booth and, giving Billy an enthusiastic slap the back, took the microphone from him and spoke, thanking Billy and the other staff who’d worked on the project and the funders who helped make such work possible. He then invited the guests to try the exhibit as soon as Billy reset it to its standard operating mode.

Billy continued to stand by the panel, looking limp and distracted. Some people began lining up at the entry arch to the booth, while others migrated over to the buffet or headed for the exit doors.

Larry turned to Anja. “So you’re Billy’s girlfriend?”

She smiled. “Sometimes I am his girl. Sometimes not.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Billy said we are staying at your place.”

Larry chuckled. “Of course,” he said.

There was a commotion in the Spirit Booth, and Larry heard a pounding sound. He looked over to see that some of the guests standing in the line or gathered nearby were backing away. Inside he could see Billy in the shadows of the booth, swinging the heavy pipe scepter powerfully at the back wall. The door with the mounted keyboard lay on the floor. Billy had stabbed the end of the pipe into the monitor, destroying the screen, and was now pulling the video camera, the computer, and the rest of the electronic guts of his creation out of the cabinet and down onto floor. As he smashed them with the pipe, he began chanting in rhythm with each swing, “It’s the end… the end of art… the end… the end of art.” He then started moving around the room methodically smashing the system of lights, cameras, projectors, and photochromatic glass that had created the moving, interactive hologram.

Larry watched with detached fascination, as though this were a continuation of the earlier drama, only with edgier, more flamboyant theatrics. He heard Anja’s voice, and then saw that she had left his side and was standing just inside the booth. She spoke to Billy loudly but calmly in Dutch, but Billy completely ignored her. It occurred to Larry that he should do something to help, but he just stood watching, in a kind of paralyzed reverie. A movement at the edge of his field of vision grabbed his attention, and he spotted Jack Hauser barreling full tilt towards Billy. Jack stopped for a moment when he reached the archway, and looked at Larry with an accusing, exasperated shrug. He then dashed into the booth, trying to get near Billy while dodging the swinging pipe. For several seconds he kept close behind Billy in a sort of dance, moving the mountain of his body with extraordinary quickness and precision. When he saw an opening, he jumped in and threw his arms around Billy, pinning the artist’s arms to his side. He continued to hug Billy tightly, speaking to him in quiet, soothing tones, so that they looked like lovers. Anja walked up to Billy and took the pipe, and Jack relaxed his embrace but gripped Billy’s shoulders with his powerful hands. Larry finally shook off his inertia and walked over to them. “Let’s get him to my office,” he said.

Inside the office Billy seemed a little calmer. The white beard had been pulled down from his face and hung under his chin, and his face expressed a wariness as he stood there watching the others. Jack, upset and out of breath, turned to Larry. “I’m gonna go help pick up the pieces. Dutchboy needs to stay in here. Can you handle that?” The sarcasm in his voice brimmed with anger. Larry nodded, and Jack left, closing the door behind him.

As soon as Billy opened his mouth, it was clear that he was still in an altered state. “I have done it!” he said making a sweeping, royal gesture with both arms. “I have put an end to the blasphemy of art, once and for all!” His face and voice revealed a mess of contradictory emotions—joy, even triumph, but also something like terror. “It was fantastic, my best performance ever.” His voice rose to a hysterical pitch. “Did you see their faces? They were in awe, weren’t they Larry!”

Larry, still feeling like a detached viewer, looked at Billy as if he were a zoo animal. “You’re in deep shit, Billy.”

“Deep shit is a part of my work,” Billy said.

Anja stared at Billy with parental disappointment. “Bezelinus,” she said, “you have done a stupid thing.”

Billy said something back to her in Dutch, and she smiled. They continued speaking for a minute, and then Billy turned back to Larry. “She knows me from when I’m little.” He sat down in Larry’s chair and stretched out his legs, then closed his eyes. He took several deep breaths, until he seemed to have calmed to a genuinely relaxed state. “I’m sick of what I have been doing. You believe I’m an artsy-fartsy boy who can’t really take care of himself.” He looked up at Larry. “Maybe you are right. It’s time for me to quit this job of making visions for blind people. I will go work in a bank. Billy Nekkers is no longer a deep shit artist. Billy Nekkers is a banker.”

There was a knock at the door. Larry let in Mark Parnell, followed by a policeman. “We have to go downtown,” Mark said. “They need to make out a report.” He looked miserable.

Billy said something to Anja in Dutch, then stood and adjusted the white robe with mock decorum. He looked at the cop, a young man about his age with a shaved head and a friendly smile. “Okay,” he said, “I’m ready for the gallows.”

Mark looked at Larry. “I gotta go with them. Maybe you can make sure Billy’s friend has a place to stay.”

* *

Larry never saw Billy Nekkers again. He let Anja stay in his guest room that night, then found a room for her and Billy at a nearby motel. The charges against Billy were dropped, with the condition that he never again set foot in the museum, and he and Anja went back to Europe shortly afterwards. The Spirit Booth was taken off the floor and dismantled. Almost nothing of value could be salvaged, and most of it went out with the trash early the next week.

Two years later, the museum sent Larry to participate in a colloquium on fundraising at NUMA, the science museum in Amsterdam. During a lunch break, sitting at an outdoor patio and looking at a stand of downy birches across the lawn, he asked one of the grant-writers for NUMA if she knew what had become of the artist Billy Nekkers.

“Ah, quite a character that Billy Nekkers,” the woman said. She had short brown hair and a serious but expressive face with pale blue eyes, and Larry had asked the question as much to engage her as to extract some news about Billy. “I heard he and some friends built a boat and sailed south as a traveling performance group. They made it across Gibraltar, and may or may not have been arrested in Tangier. The stories get a little vague and unbelievable after that, but nobody has seen him around Amsterdam for quite a while.”

The woman spoke quickly and precisely, and Larry enjoyed listening to her, as he had with Billy. He remembered Billy’s story of the mechanical fish that he’d made for NUMA, and mentioned it. “Ah that,” the woman said. “In fact it is right there in front of us.” Across the patio was a small pond, and they walked over to have a look. A large, carp-like metal fish, painted in tropical hues that reminded Larry of the serpent hologram in Billy’s performance, circled lazily around the pond.

Larry thought it looked lonely. “Billy told me it was in the big aquarium, with the other fish.”

“Well yes, we tried that. But the other fish didn’t like him. They kept attacking him and hurting themselves. So we put him here. The fish world is happier this way.”