Variations on a theme from Seinfeld


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Peter Straub was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 2 March, 1943, the first of three sons of a salesman and a nurse. Upon winning a scholarship to Milwaukee Country Day School, he became darling of his English teachers, and later attended the University of Wisconsin, emerging in 1965 with an honors degree in English. He gained an MA at Columbia a year later. It was whilst living in Crouch End, London, with his wife Susan in the 1970s, that he began writing Ghost Story. Upon returning to the US in 1979, he subsequently wrote a string of hugely successful and influential novels: Shadowlands, Floating Dragon, The Talisman (with Stephen King), Koko, Mystery, The Throat, The Hellfire Club, Mr X, Black House (also with King), Lost Boy Lost Girl and In the Night Room. A multi award winning writer, his collections of short stories include Houses Without Doors and Magic Terror. Peter Straub is a member of HWA, MWA, PEN and the Adams Round Table, and though he is without ‘hobbies,’ remains intensely interested in jazz, as well as opera and other forms of classical music. The Shadow Writer site is very proud to present the first ever English language version of the following tale.


Statement of Theme (from “Bizarro World” Episode):

One may discover the existence of a parallel world in which the characters and situations of our own are strangely echoed, and experience will demonstrate that this world is not only profoundly unsatisfying, but probably dangerous.


Three days before his fiftieth birthday, Clyde Mortar, once a Peace Corps volunteer to Mali and ever after officially a faithful servant of USAID and its august parent body, the United States Government’s Department of State, tilted forward over the expansive sink of the master bathroom in his Georgetown row house and examined the ornate little chamber reflected in the bathroom mirror. Everything present and available to be seen echoed back from its proper place: the towels briskly refolded on the towel-rack; the powerful toothbrush erect on its charging stand; on the back of the enamel-white bedroom door, the curving brass hook holding taut the fabric strip sewn just below the collar of a spotless white pajama top; the translucent glass flank and inset door of the spacious shower cabinet. When he canted forward another half-inch, there came into view three of the flat, shining footprints he had left on the floor’s dark blue tiles in the brief journey from shower to sink. Of Clyde Mortar himself, however, nothing at all was to be seen. The image before him in the mirror’s rectangular surface depicted an unusually orderly bathroom empty of humanity, especially as represented by himself. Clyde Mortar – to speak with greater accuracy, OtherClyde– had done a bunk, slipped his traces, downed tools, declared a holiday.

Had it been the first time his double’s waywardness had presented him with a mirror absent of his reflection, Mortar might well have fainted away, accused himself of vampirism or mental illness, or committed some other indecorous solecism; as it was in fact the fourth time Good Old Clyde, Clydie Boy (to use two of the names by which he liked to be known) had by failing to report to his customary station left but a Clyde-shaped vacancy in his place, Mortar experienced a great deal more of dismay and irritation than shock, though of course shock was not altogether avoidable. To a great extent, he understood exactly what had happened and what he had to do to set it right; what he did not and could not know, however, were the depths of Clydie Boy’s grievances, whatever they were, and what, after he had wiggled through the uncomfortably narrow mirror and entered the world he called De Land, he would be forced to do to redress them. Adding to the complexities of the task before him, his careful inspection of the mirror’s bathroom yielded no hints whatsoever as to where his wayward double might have gone.

When Mortar had been a child of six, the absent six-year-old Clydie Boy had left at least a small clue to his whereabouts, though the creature’s Primary, his Original, would never have noticed a thing but for the presence, the in fact astoundingly prescient presence of his footloose Uncle Budgie.


“Budgie,” originally Budgen Mortar, Clyde’s father’s older brother, a man of wandering habits, no fixed abode, and an impenetrable temperament, timed his lengthy visits precisely to the maximum period his brother’s wife found it possible to tolerate his company. This period generally worked out to be within the two-to-three week range.

It so fell out that in the manner of children everywhere little Clyde responded not as his parents wished, negatively, but entirely in reaction to his Uncle Budgie’s treatment of him, which although sometimes forgetful tended toward a grave kindly courtesy, as though the young Clyde happened to be a small Asian potentate who had dropped in on a ceremonial round of visits.

And it was with exactly such a kindly courteous gravity that Uncle Budgie met his six-year-old nephew’s stricken approach to the Mortar family kitchen, for it was in that room they took their family breakfasts, at nine o’clock of the mid-fifties Saturday morning when his nephew’s reflection first failed to make its scheduled post-urination appearance in the mirror of the upstairs family bathroom.

And it was Uncle Budgie’s kind and grave courtesy, the very gravitas of his courteous kindliness, that led the stricken boy to edge near to his uncle instead of his mother or father, who in fact, had barely noticed his entrance, and to Budgie alone describe the terrifying phenomenon of the failure of the top of his head, all at the time that was ordinarily visible to him, to appear in the mirror above the sink in the upstairs bathroom.


“You, too, hmmm?” observed the sympathetic uncle, and arranged a rendezvous, five minutes hence, upstairs.


And, “Oh, you, hmmm?” spoke the OtherClyde, when tracked down to the soda fountain where the prominent drawing of a yummy hamburger visible in an Archie comic visible just beyond the reflected bathroom door had directed the Primary and Original. Budgie had gently lifted him above the sink and guided him, outstretched hands exploring first, through the mirror’s suddenly vaporous surface. “The drugstore, boy, the drugstore,” Budgie had whispered a moment before young Clydie passed through entire, and so it been: the drugstore, boy, the drugstore down on the corner of 44 th and Auer, that’s where he found his rhyme.


In a cluttered little corner or alcove of this same drugstore, six-year-old Clyde had noticed a forlorn little girl with a sallow face and dust-colored hair nibbling a paper-cone cornet of cotton candy that appeared to have been rained upon, briefly.


Ever after, Clyde Mortar thought of this other world as De Land ob Cotton.


After the first time followed three others: at ages 13 (a rebellion on behalf of principle, quelled by Mortar’s promise to enjoy long, probing philosophical discussions with himself in front of the very same bathroom mirror); 22 (Peace Corps, the bleak northern reaches of Mali; disappeared to escape the perpetual sandstorms by dozing off under a truck belonging to a sadistic tribal chief ); 35 (Beirut, even dicier, and turned on a bribe: a long search through the bazaars of flesh merchants officially Not to Be Visited, Not Ever, and resolved only by the young officer of the United States Government’s Department of State agreeing to surround his bed on at least two sides, plus the surface overhead, with mirrors, that Clydie Boy might enjoy actual sex for a change.) The increasingly cautious and circumspect man Mr. Mortar had become detested the growing seediness of these unwelcome encounters with De Land ob Cotton.


After the first time, Uncle Budgie had pledged him to silence. This silence he kept, along with others.


His initial wife, Evelyn, the one who buggered off like the mirror-self, asked, “ Clyde, are you in the CIA, really?”

His brother said, “ Clyde, the other day Dad and I were saying that you travel so much and we can never figure out what you’re doing, we think you’re in the CIA. Are we right?

A girl of no consequence said, “Clydie-baby, just tell me the truth for once, okay? Are you one of those god-damned spooks?”


 De Land ob Cotton had rolled a long way downhill since Mortar had been obliged to stalk his double through the honky-tonks and bordellos of the Other Beirut. Then, the degenerates and lowlifes who had taken so great an interest in his progress had at least maintained a respectful distance, and what he glimpsed of the world beyond the forbidden quarter seemed only a bit seedier and run-down than the one in which he led his already deeply doubled life. Now, everything in De Land seemed poisoned. In the real-world Washington, DC, an all-night café where, in the gloom and chiaroscuro of a high-walled rear booth, he had garroted a man at the time named Pluckrose had been unsavory enough, but nothing like the leprous ruin inhabited by smeary, drunken shadows who were now tracking his progress past its filthy windows. All traces of gaiety and high life, of cigarette holders and lowslung cars with detachable ragtops had departed, leaving streets flecked with garbage and dark, tough stains that looked like blood. Bullet holes and ricochet chips scarred the brick walls. Most of the windows he saw were broken or boarded. Wearing the protective, Ninja-like garb of black trousers, black sweatshirt, a black cap, and sunglasses, and in his right front pocket carrying the faithful garrote, Mortar still felt unreasonably threatened, as if Clydie Boy might at any second launch himself, .9mm in hand, from one of the darkened doorways lining the dreary street.

Of course he would not. His mirror-self had merely drifted into despair or a halfhearted rebellion, not into a crazed homicidal hostility. As far as Mortar knew, that never happened. How could it? In the first place, whatever would these poor creatures do without their masters?

On a search such as Mortar’s, instinct, “gut feeling,” is the best guide possible, and after a half-hour of aimless wandering through the littered, brick-strewn, ever-slummier streets of De Land, he discovered that his wandering had not been aimless after all, for only a short distance from De Land’s grim, rat-infested Dupont Circle, he had come to rest on the cracked sidewalk before a tenement with crumbling steps leading up to a peeling door badly out of plumb. With every cell in his body our hero knew that Clydie Boy, Good Old Clyde, lived in the ugly rat-trap before him. The question of how long the fellow had been stuck in this hovel and the issue of what had brought him to this pass were mysteries to which Good Old Clyde’s Primary and Original was completely indifferent.

Mortar wondered what he would have to do to get into the building, and was just concocting a variation upon a scheme he had used some years before in Caracas when he placed his hand experimentally on the rough surface of the peeling door and felt it yield before him, scraping the ground as it swung inward. He stepped inside. Feathers and broken bits of white tile lay like dust on the floor of the little lobby. His target lived, of course, on the fifth floor, way at the top. Where else, but the place it would cost him most effort to reach? Otherwise, the building struck him as empty. Then for the first time it occurred to Clyde Mortar that his double may have seen him as he stood deliberating on the sidewalk.

Up and up Mortar climbed, step upon step, unworried, meeting no one and hearing no voices genuine or broadcast as he toiled upward. When at last he had attained the fifth floor, he paused panting and wheezing, confident in the supposition that no one but Good Old Clyde lived in the building. His fieldwork days were long behind him, but he still knew how to draw an inferential conclusion.

He knocked on an ugly door; his own voice called out, Come in, Clyde, and when he did so, he detected motion behind him and heard the lock click shut.

Calmly, he turned and regarded OtherClyde, who as ever in these odd moments appeared both to resemble him exactly and to be at least twenty percent more handsome than himself. The double was holding a long knife in his hand, the grip flat in his hand and the sharp side of the blade facing up.

“You won’t need that,” he said.

I’ve been thinking about us.

The double moved closer, forcing Clyde to walk backwards toward the center of the room. In his eyes was a handsome flare of passionate determination that had now and again surprised Clyde Mortar when he came upon it in his mirror.

“There is no us,” Clyde said.

Oh yes, there is. Just look at things from my perspective.

“I need you to put down the knife,” Clyde said.

I need you to hand over the garrote.

Clyde pulled the instrument from his pocket and gripped its handles, pulling the wire taut. “This little thing?”

The blade flashed up, and without Mortar feeling any sense of motion or pressure whatsoever, the separated halves of the wire flopped down like loose strings.

“Why don’t you tell me what you want? “ Clyde asked. “I’m sure we’ll be able to work out a reasonable agreement.”

There is something I want, Clyde. OtherClyde moved closer, then closer again. I’ll be happy to tell you what it is.

I want your life.

O, Uncle Budgie, Clyde thought, what did you do to me? O my first wife, O my brother and my father, O my onetime mistress, yes, you were right, for yes, it’s true, you would have hated most of the things I had to do, I’ve been thinking about us, and it’s true, but you’d damn well better take care around me in the future.



(C)  Peter Straub 2008

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